This week, settlers began construction work on a new settlement of 31 housing units in the heart of the Old City of Hebron, in the old bus station complex. This new construction in Hebron is the first in twenty years that is being carried out inside the Palestinian city, in a compound that has been occupied by the army for years as a military base and is now being established as a settlement.
Peace Now: The government is acting like an annexation government, not as a change government. Since the 1980s, no government has dared to build a new settlement in the heart of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, with the exception of one building built under the auspices of the second intifada in 2001. The Defense Minister has to stop construction, even if the plan was approved by the previous government. The settlement in Hebron is the ugly face of Israeli control of the territories. The moral and political price of having a settlement in Hebron is unbearable.
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 petitions against the building permit, but about two weeks ago they were rejected by the District Court. Appeal to the Supreme Court in expected in the coming days.
It should be noted that the government has full authority to stop the works, even after a building permit has been granted, and even after works had begun on the ground. This is not simply a theoretical observation: it has been done before and it can be done again. In 1992, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, approved a cabinet resolution to freeze construction in some settlements. This resolution imposed a total freeze of all planning procedures and construction activity in the effected settlements. The resolution provided a compensation mechanism for those who had already invested in the construction. Some investors even filed petitions to the Supreme Court arguing that such an order by the government was illegal – but the Supreme Court turned them down.
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 2001, 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. Therefore, the planning authorities in the Civil Administration decided to bend the planning standards and approve the construction.