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Settlements in Focus - Vol. 3, Issue 3: "Hebron in the Headlines"

A controversial Hebron settlement is in the news again...


Settlements in Focus

Hebron in the Headlines (Vol.3, Issue 3)
A publication of Americans for Peace Now

There has recently been a lot of news about settler activities in Hebron. What is the story?

On March 19, 2007, in a move that seemed to surprise everyone - including, according to some press reports, Israeli security and intelligence officials - several hundred settlers took over a massive building in the heart of the city of Hebron. They immediately named their new stronghold "Beit HaShalom" ("House of Peace"), while the press nicknamed the structure "Beit HaMeriva" ("House of Contention"). The takeover of the site has sparked controversy over the legality of the purchase itself, the legality of the purchase under Israeli law as it pertains to the activities of Israelis in the West Bank, and the proper role of the government in confronting this clear challenge by the settlers.

This isn't the first time settlers have seized a building or established an outpost. Why is this particular incident such a big deal?

Fundamentally this is just another outpost - a new settlement site established using illegal methods with the goal of creating new facts on the ground, demonstrating to the government of Israel that the settlers will continue to be the primary actors setting the agenda in the West Bank and dictating the geo-political reality on the ground (for a recent report on the issue of illegal outposts, see: However, this new site in Hebron is uniquely problematic, and the controversy it has sparked is of particular importance, for three reasons: the location of the site and its implications for this volatile city, the broader settler agenda that underlies the decision to undertake this provocative act at this time, and the political context in which this provocation is taking place. Each of these reasons will be explored in detail, below.

What is so important about the site itself?

The site is strategically located along the route between the settlement of Kiryat Arba (located just east of Hebron) and the group of settler-held properties located in the heart of the Hebron city center. For some time now, Hebron settlers have been trying to establish contiguity between the areas, without success. The site of this latest takeover by the Hebron settlers was clearly chosen in order to create this contiguity. Creating this contiguity between the downtown settlement sites and Kiryat Arba has been on the settlers' agenda for a long time - a goal that enjoys the support of some prominent political figures in Israel and from foreign backers (for background on who funds the Hebron settlers, see:

As noted in an earlier edition of Settlements in Focus (dedicated entirely to the issue of settlers in Hebron), Hebron settlers live in a number of distinct (non-contiguous) sites, with each site anchored by a formerly Jewish-owned property which the settlers have 'reclaimed,' renovated, and expanded. The largest of these are the Avraham Avinu area (which includes a synagogue, schools, and offices), Tel Rumeida (an archeological site on which settlers lived, from 1983-2003, in trailers; in 2003 permission was given for them to build permanent structures on the site, despite its archeological importance), Beit Hadassah, Beit Schneerson, Beit Kastel, Beit Chason, and Beit Romano. In late 2002, a plan to build a 'promenade' for settlers connecting Kiryat Arba and the city center - approved by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon following a terrorist attack in the area - generated controversy within Israel and vehement opposition from the United States. The plan was subsequently shelved. (For the full report, see:

The location is also important because the site is completely disconnected from other settler areas in Hebron -- it is clearly not an expansion of the existing settlements in the city center. If the settlers are allowed to remain at this new site, they will have succeeded in establishing a brand new, large settlement in an area of the city which until now remained free of Israeli settlers, and in the process will have massively expanded the settlers' presence and impact in the heart of this city. It should be kept in mind that it is not just the site itself that is impacted by the settlers' presence, but already a new and much larger security/military presence has been placed in the vicinity to secure the building and protect the settlers as they travel to and from the site. As is the case in the other areas of downtown Hebron where the settlers are present, when the settlers take over even one building, the effect on the ground is a much larger and more intrusive (and provocative) settler "footprint" in the entire area.

In addition, the size of the building itself is important. The site, which has often been referred to misleadingly in the press as a "house" (giving the impression of a relatively small, single-family structure) is actually a massive four-story structure intended for both commercial and residential use. According to media reports and settlers publications, the size of the building is around 3500 sq. meters (around 39,000 square feet). The settlers reportedly plan for it to become home to around 20 families (100-150 people), making it one the largest settler-populated sites in Hebron. In addition, according to press reports the settlers plan to add an additional floor to the structure, creating space for many more settlers. (Photos of the site can be seen at the Hebron settlers' website:

Finally, the fact that this is all taking place in Hebron is of tremendous importance. Hebron is the one city in the West Bank where Palestinians and settlers live cheek-and-jowl, the site of some of the worst settler violence (including the February 25, 1994 Hebron Massacre, when an American-Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque), and home to a core of the most extreme religious-nationalist ideological settlers in the West Bank. It should be recalled that Hebron is also the site of the second oldest settlement in the West Bank which, not coincidentally, was established during Passover 1968, through the illegal and deliberately provocative takeover of a building by a group of settlers. For details on the history of the settlements in Hebron, including the story of the original settlement in the settlers' own words, see:

When talking about the settlers' goals and intentions, is this just speculation or is it fact?

The settlers' goals and intentions are not secret. The settlers openly boast about their strategy and plans regarding the site. A March 19th press release posted on their website stated:

"The house of peace, on the main road between Hebron and Kiryat Arba is an additional link in the growth of the City of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Bonding Hebron and Kiryat Arba, this building will provide homes for dozens, if not hundreds of Israelis, waiting to live in Hebron. It is a tremendous asset which marks another step in the renewal of the Jewish community of Hebron. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the return to Hebron, during the 1967 Six Day war. What could be a better way to celebrate the return to Hebron than by dedicating a new building! It is our hope that this will truly be a place of peace, and that our new neighbors will finally accept that Jews have returned home, to the first Jewish city in the Land of Israel, never ever to leave again."

What does this new Hebron settlement say about the settlement movement today?

The settlers have been active in determining the political priorities of all Israeli governments over most of the past 40 years. During that time they have developed a talent for detecting especially good tactical opportunities to strike. The current situation represents such an opportunity, and the settlers have taken full advantage. The Hebron case is actually one of two recent, major settler challenges/provocations. The other provocation also took place in late March, when the settlers defied the government and eventually forced the government to permit and provide security for a huge march and symbolic "re-settlement" of the settlement of Homesh - a settlement in the northern West Bank that had been evacuated as part of Sharon's disengagement plan. At that time the settlers stayed at the site for 3 days. On April 19th it was reported that settlers are planning another march to Homesh, this time to celebrate Israel Independence Day; it is likely that in the end the IDF will accede to the settlers' demands in this regard.

The examples of Homesh and Hebron suggest that the settler leadership has decided that now is the time to regain the initiative, following several uncomfortable years during which the settlers, for the first time in the history of their movement, found themselves mainly in a defensive position (i.e., when they faced first disengagement, then the evacuation of 9 buildings in the illegal outpost of Amona, then the election of Olmert on a platform of "convergence").

One recent op-ed also observed:

"The people of Hebron know this is a test case. If the Olmert establishment, which leans that way anyway, allows them to hold on to the asset, this would mark a breakthrough. They can get many donors who would purchase many homes at the heart of the city of our forefathers at full price. They would then be able to create a continuum between Kiryat Arba and Tel Rumeida. They would be able to establish facts on the ground that would make it harder to evacuate them later, should someone would want to do that in the future, heaven forbid. The name 'House of Peace' may be an excellent starting point. Olmert's administration would be able to 'swallow' it with no trouble. More anonymous Jewish donors would donate hundreds of thousands of dollars - and if necessary, millions - just like they provided the USD 750,000 needed to purchase this shopping compound at the heart of the Arab population. 'There is no problem fundraising even a billion dollars in order to purchase houses from the Arabs here,' one of the visitors to the house told us. 'The problem is only to accept the fact that this is indeed a legal procedure, and that a Jew can purchase a house at the heart of Hebron.'",7340,L-3387605,00.html

What has this incident shown about the Israeli government?

This Hebron story comes just over a year after the formation of the Olmert-Peretz government. During this year Defense Minister Peretz has failed to deliver on any of the promises he and the Labor party made with respect to settlements - promises that were incorporated into the government platform when Labor joined Kadima in power. Not a single outpost had been dismantled nor has the pace of construction in outposts slowed. The Maskiyot saga from the end of 2006 (when the government approved the establishment of a new settlement in the Jordan Valley, then changed its mind in the face of an international outcry) was further evidence of the lack of any clear position of the government regarding the future of the West Bank.

It also comes at one of the lowest points in the careers of both Prime Minister Olmert and Defense Minister Peretz. Both are still reeling from last summer's war with Hezbollah, and Olmert himself is facing numerous scandals.

As a result, the Israeli government's response to the settlers' takeover of the site has been notable for its mixed messages, infighting, and the overall sense that those who have the legal authority to take action (the IDF, the police, Defense Minister Peretz) lack either the will or the ability to actually do so.

  • While Defense Minister Peretz and Deputy Defense Minister Sneh have insisted that the settlers will be evacuated, as is required under law and in a decision that is legally under the authority of the Defense Ministry, other key political figures, including ones very close to Prime Minister Olmert, have taken up the settlers' cause.

  • For example, on March 20 (the day after the settlers took over the property), Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, Olmert's de facto link to the settlers (Schneller is himself a settler and the former Secretary General of the settler leadership body, the Yesha Council), described the settlers' action as "a continuity of unparalleled importance. This is extraordinary. The work of the righteous is done by others. By rights, the government of Israel should have done this, but since it was done, and assuming that it is legal, this is definitely in line with Kadima's approach from the demographic standpoint, an approach which views Kiryat Arba - Hebron as a Jewish settlement bloc, under any future agreement. In my understanding, this is part of Kadima's world view."

  • Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai (Shas), who has visited the settlers at the new site, has stated, among other things, that: "Hebron is ours since Abraham our forefather purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs, and any Jew who legally purchased a home here can reside here," "I have no problem with the purchase of this house, or the purchase of other houses in Hebron," "The house is Jewish property; there is no legal or military basis to evacuate it. I will raise the issue during the next cabinet meeting," and "The settlers should not be evacuated, they have a right to the property."

Were Palestinians living at the site before the settlers moved in?

No. The building is still under construction and was vacant. While the fa├žade is mostly complete, construction on the inside of the building is not complete, and the structure is not connected to water or electricity.

How many settlers are present at the site?

While the settlers' entry into the building involved reportedly as many as 300 people, according to various reports it appears that 20-30 families have actually taken up residence at the site, living in makeshift, temporary conditions (since the building is still under construction). In addition, during the day there is a larger settler presence in the building and in its immediate vicinity, including settler children brought there for some of their classes. A photo of students at class in the building is included in a Peace Now PowerPoint presentation, which can be viewed at:

What is the status of Palestinian ownership claims to the building?

A Palestinian from Hebron from the Rajabi family claims to own the building and says he has documentation to back his claim. A petition was filed on Rajabi's behalf to the Israeli High Court of Justice earlier this week making his formal claim in the case. For more details regarding Rajabi's claim, see:,7340,L-3378588,00.html and,7340,L-3379061,00.html

What is the status of the settlers' claim to own the building?

The full details of the transaction - and whether such a transaction even took place - are unknown at this time. We only know what the settlers themselves claim: that the obtained ownership of the building through a purchase facilitated by an office in Jordan, and that they paid around $700,000 for the site, financed, according to some press reports, by a foreign benefactor. This claim has not yet been verified. In the meantime, what is known for certain is that one of the companies involved in the deal is suspected by the Israeli police of involvement in the forgery of documents related to two other sites targeted by settlers in Hebron (for details, see:

If the settlers' purchase is legitimate, do they have a legal right to take over the property?

No. According to Israeli law, real estate transactions involving Israelis and Israeli corporations on the West Bank purchasing property in Palestinian urban areas require the approval of the Minister of Defense and the Civil Administration. Without such approval any such transaction is not only invalid, but it constitutes a criminal act on the part of the Israelis involved. Assuming that the settlers obtained title to the building in a transaction that is otherwise legal (something that has not yet been established), the transaction is still illegal, since there was no such prior approval was sought or granted. A letter making this case was sent March 20th to Defense Minister Peretz by the lawyer for Peace Now's Settlement Watch. (To read the full letter, see:

Israeli attorney Talia Sasson, appointed in 2005 by Ariel Sharon to write a comprehensive report on the situation of illegal outposts in the West Bank, weighed in on the issue in a recent op-ed in Ha'aretz. A lengthy excerpt from the op-ed is included here, since it makes very clear why this approval requirement is not just a technicality, but an important requirement reflecting the national security interests of the state of Israel:

"Whether it [the building] was acquired legally by the settlers is a question related to the laws of purchase, but it is not the only question that determines the legality of its seizure. No less important is the question of whether the defense minister approved the acquisition..The approval of the defense minister is not a technical matter. The acquisition of real estate in the territories has clear diplomatic and security aspects. As ruled by the High Court of Justice, since the area is not under Israeli sovereignty, international law applies to it. The purchase of an asset by Israelis in the heart of a Palestinian population is not only a controversial matter in Israel, but is also seen by the local population as a provocative act, and this is liable to lead to violent opposition against the residents of the asset, the Jewish community and the settlements, as well as against soldiers deployed in the territories. The asset populated by Israelis requires the Israel Defense Forces to deploy differently in the area, and to reinforce the manpower engaged in protecting the residents. Moreover, any settlement in the territories, and certainly in the heart of a Palestinian population center, is liable to have a negative influence on Israel's status in the world.

"These considerations explain why the instructions of the Israeli government regarding the approval of the defense minister, as a representative of the government, were decided on even though Israel's declared policy at the time was to increase the settlements in the territories. As far as is known, no one is claiming that the defense minister and the head of the civil administration approved the purchase of the house. Since the required permit was not presented to the army, the Israel Defense Forces had an obligation to prevent the entry of the settlers before it took place."

Given that the purchase is illegal, have the settlers been ordered to leave?

On April 11th, Peretz rejected the settlers' appeal to officially register the transaction after the fact, based on the fact that the transaction was made without the required prior approval. On the same day Peretz announced his intention to order the eviction of the settlers from the house within 30 days, allowing them two weeks to evacuate voluntarily and two weeks to appeal his decision.

It is unclear whether Peretz's order to evict the settlers will be carried out, for three main reasons. First, the political future of the Peretz-Olmert government is not clear. Second, there is strong opposition within the government, and within Olmert's Kadima party, to the removal of the settlers from the building (along with pressure to strip Peretz of his authority to order their removal). Third, and perhaps most important, more than a month into this saga Prime Minister Olmert has still failed to make clear his own position on the issue, lending credence to the view that he either supports the settlers or is unwilling to expend political capital fighting this battle.

As observed in one recent editorial:

".who decides on the lines of the settlement map? Definitely not Amir Peretz. He might still be nominally in charge of upholding the law in the West Bank and officially the leader of the second-largest party in the coalition, but he has virtually no power to affect government policy. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has yet to express himself publicly on the issue, but there have been two broad hints to his view.If Olmert had felt that he was being misrepresented, surely he would have made that clear, just as he did last week when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed to be bearing messages from him to Damascus. His stand seems to have been further affirmed this week by Bar-On, one of his closest political allies, stridently supporting the settlers right to remain. If Olmert was in favor of eviction, Bar-On would have kept quiet. Now that Olmert is planning a comeback to his old haunts in the right wing, the last thing he needs is a fight with the settlers. And besides, he's not about to give Peretz any satisfaction."

As it stands, this Hebron affair will likely become either the low point for Peretz, when he is shown to all the country to be completely impotent politically, or it will become the chance for Peretz to establish himself as a real political player - something he urgently needs to do if he is going to survive the Labor party primaries in May 2007.

Are the settlers likely to be evicted anytime soon, if at all?

There is no doubt that the settlers will try to exhaust all legal possibilities and delays in order to gain more time, further entrench themselves in the building, wear out the various political actors, and ensure that anyone who challenges them is forced to expend massive political capital in the effort. Their hope, of course, is that they will benefit either from a weak government or a friendly government, and in the end their illegal act will be sanctioned post facto, as has so often happened in the past. The settlers have long lived by the rule that "it is better to ask forgiveness than permission."

In the end, they will probably be evicted, given the clear and blatant illegality of their action and the provocation this action represents, both in terms of challenging Israel's rule of law and in terms of exacerbating tensions in this very tense city. In the meantime, a recent op-ed explains the various competing forces and consideration at work here:

"It wouldn't be too rash to predict that Defense Minister Amir Peretz will never succeed in evicting the Hebron settlers from the building they moved into four weeks ago. That's not to say that they will not eventually be forced to leave by the government, but it won't be by order of Peretz. There is almost no way that the evacuation will be carried out in the month and a half left to Peretz in the Defense Ministry. The May 28 Labor primaries will almost definitely evict him both from the Labor leadership and the ministry. Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that Peretz manages to snatch victory from the jaws of almost certain defeat, he has already promised after the primaries to demand the Finance Ministry. Meanwhile, in his remaining 45 days, a quiet coalition of ministers, senior officers and legal officials are going to make sure he doesn't provoke another bloody showdown with the settlers just to boost his flagging primaries campaign.. It is almost inevitable that the next defense minister will be the one to deal with this hot potato."

What does this incident say about law enforcement and settlers in the West Bank?

With respect to this latest provocation in Hebron, a question that still hasn't been answered is why the IDF and the police allowed the settlers to enter the building in the first place, or didn't evict them immediately. As has been clearly established, the purchase was illegal, regardless of whether the financial transaction itself was properly completed. The fact that the IDF and police permitted themselves to be manipulated by the settlers in such a blatant fashion - and then turned around to provide security to enable the settlers to remain in the structure, is a black eye for both organizations and underscores the findings of the March 2005 Sasson Report (, the report on illegal settlements commissioned by Ariel Sharon, with respect to law enforcement in the West Bank:

".As opposed to Israel, law enforcement in the territories is partially in the hands of the political echelon, especially in the matter of unauthorized outposts. As far as law enforcement is concerned, the political echelon sends a message of no enforcement, when it comes to the territories. Felons are not punished. The overall picture draws the conclusion that no one seriously wants to enforce the law.To this I should add the security concept that wherever an Israeli is placed in the territories - he should be protected. Thus, IDF soldiers will arrive at any place where someone decided to build an outpost, and protect him. The result is that IDF is unwillingly dragged to give its 'seal' to illegal settlements, by being present and protecting the settlers. In its presence, and by protecting law violators, IDF sets the situation, together with these violators. It gives them protection, instead of evacuating them. Therefore it seems that law violation became institutionalized. We face not a felon, or a group of felons, violating the law..Almost all senior officials who I talked with, in the Ministry of Defense, IDF and the Israeli police, believe that the major difficulty with enforcing law in the territories, regarding unauthorized outposts, is the mixed message sent by Israeli governments along the years to executive echelons, both security and civil."

Some settler supporters argue that it is discriminatory to bar Jews from buying property in the West Bank. Is this the case?

No. First, as noted in the op-ed by Talia Sasson (copied above), Israel does not have or even claim to have sovereignty over the West Bank. Indeed, in the Israeli High Court of Justice ruling on Sharon's disengagement plan, the Court observed that since the 1967 War, Israel has had many different governments, but "their legal position regarding the status of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District as an area which is subject to a belligerent occupation did not change." Thus, if settlers are appealing to the law to sanctify their purchase, it is international law, not Israeli law, that should properly be invoked - law the settlers steadfastly reject (since under most interpretations of international law, all the settlements are illegal). When the settler extremist leader Baruch Marzel (long affiliated with the outlawed Kach party), states that "Our entry into the house in Hebron is a test of the authority of law. If there is law in Israel, the Attorney's Office must protect our rights to buy houses in our ancestors' city," he is deliberately ignoring the fact that the law he is invoking, even according to Israel, does not apply in this area. A recent editorial in Ha'aretz made this clear: "...Hebron is not Jaffa, as the settlers are trying to claim, because it is not part of the State of Israel. On the other hand, the Jewish settlers of Hebron are Israeli citizens and as such the police can evacuate them."

Second, in an almost farcical moment, Marzel went on to say, "Why should an Arab be allowed to buy a Jew's house but not vice versa?" This bizarre statement ignores the reality that a Palestinian cannot purchase, under any circumstances, property inside a West Bank settlement. Similarly, a Palestinian cannot purchase property inside Israel - indeed, Palestinians cannot even enter Israel without a special permit. It also ignores the reality that even Arab citizens of Israel may face a very difficult time purchasing property in Israeli-Jewish housing developments in Israel - a problem that has been taken to the Israeli High Court of Justice (for an example, see - the latest case is documented in a February 19, 2007 press release). Looking at this issue, a recent editorial in Ha'aretz commented: "It is quite funny to hear the legal chicanery regarding the settlers' legal right of purchase, in the context of acts of occupation that are all illegal. After all, Israel is the occupier. It has the power, and it is the law. Would anyone dream of allowing a Palestinian family to purchase a house 'with a clear right of purchase' in Ariel?"

Produced by Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now
and Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel)

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