Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hebron housing disputes pin occupation against “land redemption”


By Marta Feirra - February 04, 2016
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All photos by Marta Feirra.

From Yasser Salhab’s rooftop in the Old City of Hebron, there is a view of the Cave of the Patriarchs, also known as Ibrahimi Mosque. The disputed site, holy to both Muslims and Jews, is just a few meters away.

Yasser looks at his neighbours’ houses and sighs. On January 21, a Thursday, settlers entered the buildings next to his home, claiming they had purchased the houses from Palestinians. However, the owners of the occupied buildings denied the claims, and filed a complaint to the Israeli Police to demand the settlers’ eviction.

The few dozen settlement’s residents who broke into the homes that day stated they had bought the buildings which would expand the settlement in the city. They named the homes “Beit Rachel” and “Beit Leah,” after the biblical wives of Jacob, and raised an Israeli flag on the roof.

Malachi Levinger, the head of the Kiryat Arba settlement local council in Hebron, told Haaretz they were “redeeming two more buildings” and thus joining a “long line of land redeemers of the land of Israel.”

But the settlers were evicted by Israeli forces the next day on the orders of the Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who cited the failure to obtain the permit of transaction required under military orders.

 


From his rooftop Yasser looks at his neighbours' houses.

Yasser’s rooftop stands over Shuhada street, where two soldiers guard the entry of the disputed houses, to make sure no one enters until the procedure to determine ownership is cleared.

Shuhada street, which was formerly an important artery of the Old City and a busy market, was closed to Palestinians during the second intifada in 2000. It is part of the area in Hebron under Israeli control.

All the shops were closed and the street was emptied. Today, Palestinians can only access the street if they are granted permission by Israeli forces, while they are completely banned from entering some parts of the street.

The area used to be a commercial hub in the West Bank, but over the years of Israeli occupation, many settlements were established in and around the Old City, imposing a regime of segregation and harsh restrictions for Palestinians.

The expansion of settlements in Hebron led to a large-scale abandonment of the area by Palestinian residents and a paralysis of commercial life. Since November last year, restrictions were reinforced following an increase in Palestinian attacks against Israeli forces and settlers in the region.

 

 

“Redeeming the land”

We have the desire and intention to create a contiguity of settlement around the Cave of the Patriarchs, and from the cave all the way to Kiryat Arba,” Shlomo Levinger, a member of a Israeli NGO which acquires Palestinian real estate for Jewish settlements, told Ynet News.

In an article published recently, the Israeli news website described how the buildings were secretly purchased from a Palestinian seller, who is said to be hiding in Israel. The negotiations reportedly began years ago and included several secret meetings.

“The seller put his property on the market and there were no buyers,” Shlomo Levinger explained. “A representative on our behalf tested the waters with him to see whether he’d be willing to sell to Jews. The representative of course told [him] he will get a lot more than the market price.”

The Salhab family was also approached by Israeli buyers in the past. “A few years ago, three Israelis came and offered us three million dollars for our house”, says Samer Salhab, who lives in the Old City with his father Yasser. His family is used to the constant harassment of Israeli forces and settlers that make life in the neighbourhood very difficult for Palestinians.

Many of the houses in the Old City are empty, since most families who can afford it prefer to move to the new part of Hebron under Palestinian control. Although the houses remain empty, selling Palestinian land to Israelis in the West Bank is considered a very serious offense by the Palestinian Authority.

The offence could result in the death penalty, as it is considered an act of “treason” by Palestinian courts. The measure was described as necessary by Palestinian authorities “to ensure the founding of a future state.”

In the old market of Hebron, a shopkeeper and resident in the Old City believes the houses were sold by one of the members of the large al-Zaatari family. She shakes her head disapprovingly. “How can people sell their houses like that?” she asks. “Just for money? Money isn’t everything.” But she adds that according to Palestinian law and traditions, all the members of the family own the house, and just one family member is not entitled to sell it.

Muhanned al-Zaatari, a member of the family who owns the disputed houses, sits in his office in Hebron’s city center. The houses occupied on January 21 have been in his family for over 70 years. He looks tired and visibly concerned. “Our family hasn’t been able to sleep,” he tells us.

“The houses belonged to my grandfather. When he died, in 2007, they were left to 14 people, nine uncles and five aunts,” he says. “We have many family members, some of them live abroad, and their permission is also needed to sell the house. One person is not enough.”

Muhanned talks with concern about one of his uncles, who disappeared on the same day the houses were occupied, and hasn’t been seen by family members since then.

“We fear he got himself into trouble”, says Mohanned. They haven’t been able to contact him and don’t know where he is. “He is a rich man, he doesn’t need more money,” Muhanned points out, with a trace of exasperation in his voice. He insists that all his uncles’ permission is needed to sell the houses, but fears the legal issues might take many years to be solved.

The local organisation Hebron Rehabilitation Committee is giving the family legal support, gathering the necessary documents to prove the houses still belong to the family, who are determined to not sell them.

When Mohanned’s grandfather was still alive, he was approached by Israeli buyers several times. “They came with an empty check, saying they would buy the houses for any price,” he says. But the offers were always vehemently rejected.

“For me this is not only our house, it belongs to all people in Hebron. It is important for all Palestinian families in the city,” Muhanned told the Palestine Monitor. His family moved from the Old City around 15 years ago. “We had to move from the Old City because there were too many problems there. But we hope to come back to our house someday.” 

 

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