Defense Minister Bennet ordered today COGAT (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) to start the planning process of a new settlement at the Wholesale Market in the Old City of Hebron. Although in November 2018 then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his intention to promote the planning, until today no practical step took place to advance the construction of the settlement.
In Minister Bennett’s letter, COGAT is ordered to “advance the planning procedures in the Wholesale Market in Hebron, in way of knocking down the existing structures and building new ones, in accordance to the law” and to “send a letter from the Civil Administration to the Hebron Municipality”.
Peace Now: These are very bad news for Israel: bad morally, bad for the security, and bad in terms of the political chances for peace. The settlement in Hebron is the ugliest face of Israel’s control in the Occupied Territories. In order to maintain the presence of 800 settlers among a quarter of a million Palestinians, entire streets in Hebron are closed to Palestinians, denying them freedom of movement and impinging on their livelihoods.”
Why a new settlement in Hebron should not be promoted:
1. It is ethically inadmissible to settle beyond the sovereign borders of one’s state, in an area where one’s own military exercises effective control over a local population and prevents it from acquiring full rights. Moreover, it is the very settlements themselves that stand in the way of a political agreement that would end this military control (i.e. the Occupation) and grant Palestinians freedom from foreign rule (or, theoretically, equal rights within Israel). The common settler refrain is that they are merely “coming back to live in their ancient homeland,” yet this explanation entirely ignores the context of how their living in the West Bank perpetuates Israel’s military rule over the Palestinians at the cost of the latter’s freedom.
2. It imposes a security burden – Establishing a new settlement in the heart of a Palestinian city, where 800 settlers live among a population of 200,000 Palestinians, will necessarily demand that the IDF invest more forces to guard them.
3. It’s not just “another hill” – A settlement in the heart of a dense Palestinian urban area is unlike any settlement. In order to protect the settlers in the Palestinian-populated area, the IDF imposes extreme measures on the population, including by closing shops and businesses, closing streets for vehicular traffic, and in some streets forbidding Palestinians from walking on them entirely. In this sense, the settlement in Hebron is the ugly face of Israeli control over the Palestinian Territories. It is both immoral and a public relations disaster for Israel.
4. The Wholesale Market is a symbol – The wholesale market complex was the vibrant heart of the Old City of Hebron. It was tragically closed by the IDF’s order in 1994 following the Baruch Goldstein Massacre of Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. At the Hebron Protocol, signed by then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Arafat in 1997, Israel committed to re-open the wholesale market in Hebron as part of the “Normalization of Life in the Old City.” However this commitment was never implemented and the shops are still closed to this day.
5. Legally, the land belongs to the Hebron municipality (in protected tenancy) – The protected tenants cannot be “thrown out” without justifiable grounds and judicial decision. The political will of the Israeli government to establish a settlement cannot be grounds for this, and it means adopting the apartheid-like system whereby the Israeli population is superior to the Palestinian population (see explanation below).
6. The allocation of land to the settlement will constitute acceptance of the principle of Right of Return – The basis of the settlers’ demand for the establishment of a settlement in the wholesale market is that the land was owned by Jews before 1948. Israel has hundreds of thousands of dunams and properties owned by Palestinians before 1948. If the Israeli government accepts the claim of the landowners to right to return to their land taken in 1948, it will undermine the Israeli claim that the Palestinians’ right of return inside Israel need not be implemented.
7. Political Damage – Apart from the moral, security, legal and breach of Israeli commitments, the expansion of the settlement in Hebron precludes us Israelis from the prospect of a two-state agreement. In so doing, we are weakening our own ability to preserve Israel’s democratic character by making our military rule over a non-enfranchised Palestinian population permanent.
1929 Hebron Massacre: The Historical “Justification” for Israeli Settlement and Oppression in Hebron
Hebron is one of the holy cities for Jews and Muslims, where our common ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are buried. Jews have lived in Hebron for centuries, mostly under Muslim rule.
In 1929, on a day marked by the Hebrew calendar acronym “Tarpat,” Palestinians from the surrounding area carried out a horrific massacre of Hebron Jews and murdered 60 Jews in cold blood, wounded over a hundred more. The Jewish community in Hebron tried to recover after the massacre, but most of the residents left. A small community remained until the 1947 UN Partition Plan was accepted and the the civil war in Palestine loomed. In 1967 settlers demanded to re-establish the settlement in Hebron that was destroyed after 1929.
The story of the massacre in Hebron is a story of human beings becoming animals and carrying out a shocking pogrom on their neighbors. Not to be erased from historical memory, it is also a heroic story of Palestinian neighbors who risked their lives and saved dozens of Jews by giving them shelter. For this, these Arabs received official recognition from the Zionist movement.
The Tarpat Massacre is a major driver of the settlers’ narrative and their demand to re-establish a Jewish presence in Hebron: “We were forcibly removed; We’ll come back here by force.” In the Bible, Abraham teaches that he purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs with money even though he could have received it as a gift. The settlers, by contrast, took only the “deed”, the fact that it was “ours”. Less connected to the idea of settling out of consent and respect for the locals.
The story of the wholesale market
The plot of land was owned by Jews before 1948. After the Jordanians occupied the West Bank in the 1948 War, Jordan leased the plot under protected tenancy to the Municipality of Hebron, which in turn built the city’s wholesale market there. The wholesale market became the bustling heart of the Old City of Hebron.
In the 1980s, the Avraham Avinu settlement compound was established near the wholesale market. In Purim of 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Arba, murdered dozens of Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Following the massacre, the IDF closed the wholesale market by special order because of its proximity to the settlers’ houses and the fear of revenge attacks. The temporary closure for security purposes continued and was extended for a period of many years, including until this day.
As mentioned above, at the Hebron Protocol, signed by then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Arafat in 1997, Israel committed to re-open the wholesale market in Hebron as part of the “Normalization of Life in the Old City” but it was never re-opened.
In 2001, settlers took advantage of the Intifada and curfew imposed on the Palestinians in Hebron, and invaded the empty shops and set up residential apartments there. The Civil Administration issued eviction orders against them only in response to a petition by the Hebron Municipality to the High Court (HCJ 5097/01) and settlers vacate in 2006. Two families returned to the shops immediately after the evicted, but were evicted in 2007.
The protected tenancy of the Hebron Municipality – the legal opinion of the Ministry of Defense
Until recently, the legal advice in Israel was that according to existing law, the rights of the protected tenants of the Hebron municipality should not be withdrawn without proper legal process, in accordance with the terms of the Jordanian law on tenant protection. Last November, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his intention to build a new settlement in the wholesale market, based on a legal opinion prepared by the Defense Ministry.
The Movement for the Freedom of Information filed for the Ministry of Defense to send over the legal opinion, but the Ministry of Defense refused on the grounds that it was an internal document. Following a petition filed by the movement to the district court of Tel Aviv, the Defense Ministry agreed to “paraphrase” the opinion and give the movement a summary of the main points of the full opinion.
The opinion argues that it is permissible to build over the structure of the wholesale market because, it claims, the protected tenancy of the municipality is only in the shops themselves and not on the roof or the ground. It also states that because in the foreseeable future, the wholesale market is unlikely to reopen to the Palestinians due to the “political-security” situation, Israel is also allowed to demolish the stores to dig new foundations for construction, and then build the stores and above them the settlers’ houses.
The summary states the following:
“The denial of the use of the complex for a limited and defined construction period does not create any difficulty in this regard because the stores are idle for near twenty-five years and there is no reason to assume that the political-security situation prevailing in Hebron will allow their return to activity in the foreseeable future.”
It is important to note that this is a very different opinion from the previous positions of the legal advisers. In 2007, Sharon Afek, then Legal Adviser of the Civil Administration, issued a legal opinion stating that the Hebron Municipality’s protected tenant rights in the area of Hebron’s old Central Station can neither be appropriated nor the land be allocated to settlers. Nevertheless, the government is promoting a plan to build 31 housing units in the area of the old central bus station, and has even allocated a budget of NIS 21.6 million for the project.
The irony is that the settlers claim that the 1929 massacre led to the expulsion of the Jews from the land on which the wholesale market stands, but under Israeli rule, the 1994 massacre (of the settler Baruch Goldstein) led to the expulsion of the Palestinians from the wholesale market. It now emerges that, according to the Defense Ministry’s legal advice, because of their massacre, the Palestinians are losing their rights.
Another two legal opinions – In parallel to the legal opinion of the Ministry of Defense there was another opinion by the Legal Adviser of the Civil Administration, who as far as Peace Now could gather, opposed the idea and said that Israel is not allowed to appropriate the Hebron Municipality’s rights to the wholesale market. In October 2018, the deputy Legal Adviser to the Government at the Ministry of Justice wrote a third opinion on the issue, but the Ministry of Justice refuses to disclose this opinion, classifying it as “internal.”