On 25 October 2020, the state informed the Jerusalem District Court that the Civil Administration will issue next week a building permit for the construction of 31 housing units for settlers in the heart of the city of Hebron. The announcement was made in response to separate petitions filed by Peace Now and the Hebron Municipality against the approval of the building permit for the construction of the new settlement on the site of the old central station in Hebron.
In October 2017, the Higher Planning Council of the Civil Administration approved the issuance of a building permit for the construction of a new settlement in the heart of Hebron in an area that previously served the Hebron municipality as the central station and was closed by the IDF for security reasons. In October 2018, the government decided to allocate NIS 21.6 million from various government ministries to finance the construction of the project. The Hebron municipality, as well as Peace Now, filed objections to the building permit, but the Higher Planning Council rejected them.
Peace Now and the Hebron Municipality filed petitions against this decision in the Jerusalem Administrative Court (District Court) in which they argued that the permit granted was illegal. A hearing on the petitions is expected to convene on January 31, 2021.
The state was quick to issue the building permit even though the court has explicitly ruled that work should not start until the above hearing takes place. In its statement, the state explains to the court that although the court order prohibits the commencement of the works, it does not prohibit the issuance of the permit itself.
The timing of this unexpected and dubious move appears to be connected to the impending 3 November election in the United States, when it is unclear how the position of the next administration will be toward Israeli construction in the heart of Hebron. Now, with a building permit in hand, the government can argue that construction is already an fait accompli and cannot be reversed..
Peace Now: The settlement in Hebron is the ugly face of Israeli control of the West Bank. The moral and political price of having a settlement in Hebron is unbearable. To protect a handful of settlers in the city, the IDF is taking extreme measures against the Palestinian population including closing shops and businesses, closing streets to vehicular traffic and even banning Palestinians from walking down the street. The attempt to squeeze in this construction of 31 settlement units before the US election is an unscrupulous act that threatens Israel’s national interest and relations on the world stage.
The approval of the building permit in the heart of Hebron is an extraordinary move not only because it is a new settlement in Hebron for the first time since 2002, but because it indicates a significant change in Israeli legal interpretation of what is allowed and forbidden in occupied territory.
The area in question was owned by Jews before 1948, and it was leased by the Jordanian government in protected tenancy to the Hebron municipality for the purpose of establishing the central bus station. Since 1967, the Israeli authorities managed the land and continued the lease to the Hebron municipality, until in the 1980s when the area was seized for military purposes, the bus station was closed and a military base was established there.
A legal opinion of the Judea and Samaria Attorney General on the issue in 2007 emphatically stated that by law the municipality’s protected lease must not be revoked. But as part of the changes led by the Netanyahu government in recent years in the legal field, legal advisers have been found to present other legal opinions.
Peace Now was unable to obtain from the authorities the legal opinion that allowed the allocation of the land to the settlers, but following freedom of information proceedings, and with the help of the Freedom of Information Movement, it was able to obtain a similar opinion, on the wholesale market in Hebron.
- For an analysis on the legal opinion, see an article by Attorney Michael Sfard (in Hebrew).
- For further explanation on the settlement plan over the Old Wholesale market (the plan with the similar legal opinion)
The permit is also a significant deviation from the planning standards. According to the existing master plan in Hebron (a plan approved in 1945 during the British Mandate and which has not been updated since), in the Old City it is forbidden to build over two floors, it is forbidden to dig basements and the percentage of construction is limited to 30%.
The settlement plan includes six floors and two underground parking lots as well as 500% construction. According to the planning laws it is clear that the proposed project is contrary to the provisions of the existing plan and in a normal situation a detailed plan should have been prepared that would approve such anomalies. But the planning powers of the Israeli government in an occupied Palestinian city are limited, and it is uncertain whether a new construction plan for a settlement in the heart of Hebron can be legally approved.
These two questions, the planning status and the allocation of land, are before the District Court in the petitions by Peace Now and the Municipality of Hebron.