Hebron Jewish families are preparing to hold a Passover Seder next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in two structures they moved into late Monday night with apparent nods of approval from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the IDF.
Should they be allowed to remain in the Shuhada Street homes, Hebron’s Jewish community would have significantly strengthened its territorial hold on the stretch of road from the Tomb to the Beit Aveinu apartment complex.
Monday’s night’s move that was celebrated with champagne at night and popsicles on Tuesday afternoon, is part of a battle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the control of the area of Hebron’s Old Town that surrounds the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The two stone structures, which settlers call Beit Rachel and Beit Leah, can together house upward of a dozen families.
Jews moved there after a High Court of Justice decision forced 15 settler families to move out last Thursday of a contested structure known as Beit Hamachpela, where they had lived for the past eight months. It was located just across the park from the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
It is believed that settlers were granted permission to move into the two homes, in exchange for peacefully leaving Beit Hamachpela.
As of Tuesday night, the IDF had no orders to evacuate Beit Rachel and Beit Leah. During the day soldiers wandered in and out of them, with one congratulating the residents and offering to help with whatever they needed.
The defense minister, who has the authority to authorize settler presence in the homes, spoke on Tuesday and reference them as an example of how conflict could be resolved, so that there would be peace between Jews and Jews.
“I look at what happened yesterday and today, in Beit Rachel and Beit Leah in Hebron,” Liberman said. “There was a great deal of wisdom and a willingness to reach an agreement between Jews and Jews.”
He spoke at a cornerstone-laying ceremony in nearby Gush Etzion for a temporary site to house 15 families from the evacuated Netiv Ha’avot outpost.
The left-wing organization Peace Now called on Liberman to order the IDF to evacuate the families from Beit Rachel and Beit Leah, which it said are owned by a Palestinian family named Zaatari.
Shlomo Levinger, who is one of the spokesmen for the Hebron Jewish community on this issue, said the two structures were legally purchased and that the families had permission to be there. This included receiving a permit from the Defense Ministry that allowed them to purchase the homes, he said.
But Peace Now claimed that the entry of the settlers was illegal, because they had been given permission to purchase the structures but not a permit to enter them.
“Therefore, the break-in on 26 March constitutes an illegal act under Israeli law,” Peace Now said.
The Zaatari family, which had left the homes because of severe restrictions on movement in Hebron’s Old City, “claims to have never sold the compound,” Peace Now said.
It said settlers first tried to move into the homes in January 2016, but were quickly evicted by the IDF.
Walid Walid Assaf, who heads the PA Commission Against the Wall and Settlements, called the entry to the structures a deliberate “act of aggression.”
The Zaatari family plans to petition the High Court to compel the settlers to leave, said Assaf. He further charged that Israeli had deliberately made life difficult for Palestinians in the area, forcing them to leave so that the settlers could take over the homes.
Since 1997, Hebron has been split with 80% of the city under the auspices of the PA and 20% under Israeli control.
Some 1,000 Jews live in that area, which includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs and some of Hebron’s Old City.
As part of an effort to strengthen its hold on that area, the PA in 2017 succeeded in adding both the Tomb and Hebron’s Old City to UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.
Spain has helped fund the rehabilitation of Palestinian homes behind the Tomb, to increase the Palestinian presence there.
Hebron Jews in turn had made three attempts to move into structures near the Tomb.
They have focused on a small stretch of Shuhada Street that has been virtually deserted since the IDF closed down most of the Palestinian shops there for security reasons when the Second Intifada broke out in 2000.
Levinger on Tuesday spoke of the significance of the Beit Rachel and Beit Leah move, in light of the Jews’ long history in the biblical city.
The Jewish community was destroyed in the 1929 massacre, in which Muslims killed 67 Jews. Jews were banned from the city when Jordan controlled it from 1948 to 1967.
In April 1968, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Shlomo’s father, moved with a group of Jews into the Park hotel in Hebron and held the first Passover Seder in the city since 1929, as part of a drive to help Jews return in the wake of the Six Day war. In a deal with the government, they moved to a former army base on a hill just northeast of Hebron, where they established the of Kiryat Arba settlement.
While Jews did not begin to live in Hebron until 1979, the Jewish community dates its return to the city from that first Seder.
Shlomo Levinger said the Jewish acquisition of Beit Rachel and Beit Leah, so close to Passover, “is the nicest present there could be to mark our jubilee year [in Hebron].”
Behind him, large Israeli flags hung from the rust-covered iron grates that cover the structures’ windows.
“There is a sense of deja vu here,” said Levinger. “My father paved the way to enter, and the apples have not fallen far from the tree.
“I hope it is the first step to strengthen the Jewish presence on the narrow strip where we are allowed to live here,” he said.
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