by Nadav Shragai
For 52 years, the Jews of Hebron have been trying to get back the land that was stolen from them in the riots of 1929, but the government is doing so only incrementally, usually after terrorist attacks. Now the attorney general has approved a plan to clear and rebuild the city's market area in an attempt to bring Jews back.
|IDF paratroopers patrol the Hebron wholesale market, which has stood empty since 1994 | Photo: Miri Tzachi|
Shortly thereafter, the Jewish residents of Hebron were told that the market would be rented to the Jewish community in Hebron and used for family residences. That promise has yet to be fulfilled. Now, 13 years later, a legal opinion has been issued – on paper, at least – that allows the Jews to return to their own land. Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has to make a decision that most of the MKs in the outgoing government coalition support, but he is still hesitant.
Yifrach currently serves as head of the board of directors of the Sephardi community's Magen Avot organization, which inherited a large part of the Sephardi Jewish property in Hebron, including the market area. Yifrach succeeded Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu and granted the Jewish population of Hebron the legal authority to hold onto the market area and settle Jewish residents there.
"90 years after the slaughter and five years after the murder of my grandson and his friends, there is no reason not to right a historical wrong and return the people of Israel to their borders and close the circle," Yifrach told Israel Hayom last week.
Yifrach, who joined the movement to renew the Jewish population in Kiryat Arba 52 years ago, would be happy if one of the homes that were to be built in the market would be named after his grandson, who often visited him in Kiryat Arba and even studied at Shavei Hebron Yeshiva, near the market. He is calling on Netanyahu to stop dawdling: "Now is the time to act. Later, it could be too late."
Unlike Yifrach, Hebron Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh is doing everything in his power to keep Jews from returning to their land. Abu Sneineh was convicted of murdering six yeshiva students in a terrorist attack at Beit Hadassah in 1980. Abu Sneineh was released in a prisoner exchange deal after serving only two years behind bars. In his mayoral election campaign, he bragged about the murder.
Abu Sneineh and the Palestinian Authority are openly working together to "strangle" the Jewish community in Hebron by building hundreds of housing units around the small Jewish neighborhoods and offering benefits to Arab residents who move there. The mayor is even waging a bitter battle over a construction permit that was issued two years ago to build the Hezekiah neighborhood. By filing appeal after appeal, he has so far managed to block the construction of the 31 apartments planned for the area. The land for the new neighborhood, which is slated to be named after Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini, author of the halachic encyclopedia "Sdei Chemed," who lived and studied there, was purchased by the fifth Chabad rebbe some 120 years ago. The plot lies next to Beit Romano, which is home to the Shavei Hebron Yeshiva.
The Likud, the Yamina list (formerly the New Right), and Shas are pressing Netanyahu to make a decision about the construction before the Sept. 17 election. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has promised to help, and Likud ministers Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Moshe Kahlon, and Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar are all busy with the issue. In Yamina, Ayelet Shaked is leading the fight for construction. As justice minister, Shaked made a herculean effort to end the ongoing construction freeze that the Hebron Jewish community has suffered under for about 20 years.
But Netanyahu is hesitant. In January 1997, the first Netanyahu government adopted the Hebron Protocol, which put 80% of the city under full Palestinian control. At the same time, Netanyahu made a commitment under the same agreement "to work to protect all the conditions and requirements needed to ensure the existence, security, and solidity of the Hebron Jewish community." But moments before the Trump administration's "deal of the century" is due to be announced, it doesn't look like Netanyahu will do anything without prior agreement from the Americans – which he hasn't yet received.
The turning point under Begin
To understand all the twists and turns of the story of the Hebron market, one should look back at the earlier chapters. In 1929, 67 Hebron Jews were murdered, and many others wounded. Those who remained of the ancient Jewish community were expelled from the city and left behind a considerable property. That property was transferred to a new Jordanian legal entity: "The Executor for Property of the Zionist Enemy," which rented it to Arabs in Hebron. The 4.5 dunams of the market, which used to be part of the ancient Jewish quarter, were rented by the Jordanians to the Hebron Municipality, which built the market there.
No political leadership in Israel ever volunteered to expand the Hebron Jewish quarter or even began refurbishing it after the Six-Day War. In contrast to what the government did in the Old City of Jerusalem, where it returned Jewish property to its original owners, the rules were different in Hebron. Levi Eshkol's government effectively put a freeze on the existing situation in the city and transferred the stolen Jewish property that was entrusted to the Jordanians to an Israeli trustee who represented the military government, who then continued to rent Jewish property to Arabs.
Nearly everything that has happened since that point has involved terrorism: immediately after six yeshiva students were murdered at Beit Hadassah in 1980, the government of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to renew the Hebron Jewish community and decided that the stolen Jewish property would be used to develop the city's Jewish community.
Bit by bit, and almost always through a struggle, tiny areas of Jewish settlement were established on the Jewish land where the original residents had been murdered and expelled in 1929. First, the Avraham Avinu Synagogue – whose ruins had been used as a goat pen and public toilet – was rebuilt. Then Jewish residents moved into Beit Hadassah, and later the ancient Jewish quarter of the city was reestablished in three stages.
The next steps were Beit Romano and Beit Schneerson, which were followed by the home at Tel Rumeida. The Beit Hachum and Yehuda apartment complex was built in 1988, after the murder of two residents there three years earlier, as was the sixth building – which was erected in 1999 and named after the six victims of the Beit Hadassah terrorist attack.
Today, the Jewish population of Hebron comprises some 80 families (about 700 people), and 300 more yeshiva students. Hundreds of more families, some of which are the second and third generations of the founding renewed Jewish community, are on a waiting list for housing there. A battle is being waged on two fronts: to implement the building permits for the Hezekiah neighborhood and the market.
The Palestinians were defended
The Arab renters were evicted from the market in 1994, shortly after Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. The IDF made the decision to do so, fearing retaliatory terrorist attacks on Jews in the area of the nearby Avraham Avinu Synagogue. The IDF Civil Administration informed renters that it did not intend to renew their leases. The market was moved, and the evacuated merchants moved into the new space and made their living there. But since then, requests by the Jews of Hebron for the market plot to be returned to them and allow Jews to live there have been denied.
The reality changed following yet another murder. In March 2001, a Palestinian sniper shot and killed the infant Shalhevet Pass, who was in her stroller near the front door of her family's home in the Avraham Avinu neighborhood. The event shocked the Israeli public because the terrorist had chosen a 10-month-old baby as his target. In response, residents of the Jewish community seized apartments in the empty market area and called the neighborhood Mitzpe Shalhevet. The Civil Administration immediately responded and issued an eviction order. The Jews decided not to comply. They also appealed to the Civil Administration, effectively launching the legal stage of the battle for the Hebron market. Those residents also scored a victory: an appeals committee in the Civil Administration decided that although the families had taken over the property without a permit, the trustee should rent it to them.
Later, the Hebron settlers saw another win, when the legal counsel for Judea and Samaria wrote an opinion which recommended that the market should be rented to the Jewish community rather than to the Hebron Municipality. The government even informed the High Court of Justice and the city of Hebron of that decision. At the same time, the IDF signed an eviction agreement with the Jews of Hebron, in which the political leadership was involved.
The Jewish residents were promised that the market would be rented to them again within a short while, but then consulting attorney general Mike Blass rejected the legal opinion of the Judea and Samaria attorney general. Blass decided that the city of Hebron's "protected residency" in the market was still in effect, and therefore it could not be rented to the Jewish community.
The legal system adopted Blass' stance, which for the settlers was like waving a red flag. In 2007, the Jews of Hebron tried to enter the market again. They were removed by force, and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak issued orders to smash the buildings to make them uninhabitable.
After that, the ruins of the market stood silent until Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved a new legal opinion authored by a legal adviser to the Defense Ministry, Itai Ofir. That opinion, which allows Jewish-owned land to be returned to its rightful owners, is on Netanyahu's desk. The prime minister is the one who needs to give Yossi Segal, the executor for the Hebron property, the green light to inform the city of Hebron that its "residency" in the Hebron market is over, and that in accordance with the law the government is willing to allow it to occupy the ground floor of the market if it agrees to clear out and rebuild the areas that surround the wreckage of the old structures.
The people of Hebron are waiting for Netanyahu's decision, and possibly for Trump's.
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