JERUSALEM – The Israeli Supreme Court heard arguments on two cases that can significantly change the complexion of the West Bank, in particular the Old City of Hebron as well as the South Hebron Hills consisting of the villages of Majaez, Taban, Isfay, Fakhit, Hallawa, Al Mirkaz, Jinba and Kharuba.
Although the two court cases are distinct, they share the all too common implications of evicting Palestinians from their homes, in violation of international laws. The evictions are a means to carve out more of the West Bank to make room for the expansion of Israeli Settlements in Palestinian lands.
The first case focuses on the Al Rajabi Building, a Palestinian-owned apartment complex in the center of the H2 area of Hebron. The building, which was home to 40 Palestinian families, is strategically located between the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah and the illegal Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.
As far back as March 19, 2007, the Al Rajabi building came under contention while it was occupied by settlers, after what proved to be a questionable sale of the building. By November 16, 2008 there was evidence that some of the documents of sale were forged. This finding resulted in the eviction of the settlers and the building being placed under control of Israeli military, until the District Court ruled on the ownership.
Settlers were forcibly evicted by the Israeli army after they refused to leave voluntarily. OCHA, Office For The Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports that after the eviction, settlers set fire to Palestinian homes, farms, olive trees, and vehicles. Six Palestinians were injured, two with live ammunition. OCHA also reports that during that time, violence spread to at least 12 other locations, with the same modes of destruction to property, and harassment of the Palestinians.
The prolonged contention around the building has been drawn out as both sides of the case have much to gain and much to lose in the court ruling. For the Palestinian community of Hebron, if the Al Rajabi building is taken under possession by the settler community, it will essentially sever the northern part of H2 from the southern part by a series of Israeli checkpoints, by-pass roads, and personnel as a means to incorporate the building into the infrastructure of the Kiryat Arba settlement. The already chronic military abuses in Hebron will undoubtedly escalate with the additional personnel it will take to secure the Israeli-only corridor in a high traffic area of the city.
The ideological settlers of Hebron have a strategic investment in not only the building, but also the land surrounding the structure. The land, providing pathways to the heart of the city cente,r can make a lucrative economic impact on their community at the expense of 200,000 Palestinians living in Hebron.
Despite the duration of the contention surrounding the building, the Supreme Court did not offer a ruling on the ownership of the property.
The decision also has heavy implications in the procedural aspects of purchasing land, in so far as it sets a precedent for obtaining lands with forged documents – which the court has acknowledged.
Menachen Blum, of Zahalka-Blum Law Offices, the firm representing the Al Rajabi family plans on appealing the verdict if the court rules in favor of the settlers.
“We had a strong argument based on the fact that documents were forged and that the buyers have only paid three-quarters of the sum of the property,” said Blum.
The 918 Firing Zone in the South Hebron Hills also represents a key piece to developing and sustaining Palestinian sovereignty in the West Bank. Consisting of eight villages spanning over 7,500 acres of land, thousands Palestinians may be negatively affected.
Since the declaration of a military firing zone in 1970, the Palestinians living in those communities have been the subject to countless Israeli settler attacks. They have also faced harassment from the military, such as impromptu road blocks of impassable mounds of rubble, low flying helicopters swooping down low, creating dust clouds over the shepherds while they are herding their sheep, as well as other obstacles that have impeded the daily routine of the inhabitants of the land.
In 1999, the IDF issued evacuation orders for 700 of the area’s residents and, in the middle of the night, loaded them onto trucks and let them off at the outskirts of the nearby Palestinian city of Yatta. The soldiers also destroyed buildings and wells used by Palestinians in the area.
Despite the case going into mediation, after the conclusion of the hearing the mood in the hallway outside of the court room was optimistic.
Court documents laid out what lawyers argued is a weak legal justification for Palestinian displacement. The Israeli army claimed that the area is largely abandoned and that the Palestinians are nomads, not permanent residents – but documents have demonstrated the livelihood and the centrality to Palestinian life of the area of the firing zone. The Israeli army maintains the position that it needs the firing zone to save time and money. The military argued to the court that the distance to an alternative site will cost money and reduce army fitness, although there is more land delegated to firing zone in the West Bank than the total area of Area A – which under the Oslo Agreement is under full Palestinian control. A U.N. map here demonstrates the falsity of the need for additional firing zone land (http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_firing_zone_factsheet_august_2012_english.pdf)
Whereas the need for an additional firing zone could hardly be argued, a Christian Peacemaker Team infographic (http://cpt.org/files/palestine/information-packet-firing-zone-918.pdf) shows a strong correlation throughout the West Bank between the more than a hundred outposts that Israeli settlers set up without permission from their own government and the location of firing zones throughout the occupied territories as a way to establish “facts on the ground” as a tool to systematically expropriate Palestinian land for Israeli expansion.
What the mediation holds is anybody’s guess, but what is up for grabs is not.