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The Jerusalem Post: "Eviction of Hebron settlers upheld, but Jews claim victory with right of appeal"

"We won," said attorney Michael Sfard, who represents both Peace Now and the former Palestinian shop owners, who rented the space from the Custodian of Abandoned Property until 2000.

May. 28, 2008

By Tovah Lazaroff

A military judicial panel upheld an eviction order for two Jewish Hebron families who live in two empty Palestinian shops, but gave them 60 days to appeal.

Both sides hailed the decision as a victory.

"We won," said attorney Michael Sfard, who represents both Peace Now and the former Palestinian shop owners, who rented the space from the Custodian of Abandoned Property until 2000.

At that time, for security reasons, the IDF banned Palestinians from accessing the stores they had rented in the marketplace, which abuts the Jewish Avraham Avinu neighborhood. By 2003, two Hebron Jewish families began using the shops as living space.

In July 2007, the civil administration issued eviction orders, which were immediately appealed by Hebron's Jewish community.

Hebron Jews claim that since the property had initially been owned by the Jews who lived there prior to the 1929 riot, in which Palestinians killed 67 Hebron Jews, the two Jewish families had a right to those shops. The claim is backed up by Yosef Ezra, whose family had owned the land and who would now like it to be used by Jews.

But the land and the shops themselves are under the control of the Custodian of Abandoned Property, which took it over from its Jordanian counterpart after the latter controlled it from 1948 to 1967.

The Palestinians have claimed, through their lawyers, that the Jewish families should not be there because they entered illegally. It was a claim upheld Tuesday by the military judiciary panel.

Sfard said that what was important here was that the judges had recognized this point and used it as the basis to uphold the eviction order.

But for the Hebron Jews, what mattered was the right to appeal and their belief that written statements by the judges have opened an avenue for them to remain in the shops by law.

Tuesday's judgment allows the Hebron Jews to appeal to the Custodian of Abandoned Property to legalize their presence in the shops, after which the custodian has 30 days to render a decision.

According to Tuesday's ruling, the custodian can take into account the wishes of the Ezra family as well as the overall good of the property.

"It's an important ruling, and it will lead to all the necessary permits that we need in order to be able to stay there," said Hebron Jewish community spokesman David Wilder.

Another spokeswoman, Orit Struck, added that the ruling gave Jewish rights precedence over Palestinian ones, and the precedent of taking into account the wishes of the initial owners could be applied to other properties in the West Bank, particularly in their city.

Sfard said he was not concerned about this precedent, because the military judiciary would not uphold it.

"This decision is extremely dangerous for the settlers," Sfard said. Most of the land under the control of the Custodian of Abandoned Properties in the West Bank formerly belonged to Palestinians, not Jews.

"If we were to apply the law equally, it would give the Palestinians a huge advantage," said Sfard.