Israel approved the construction of the first modern Jewish building in Hebron in the last six years on Monday, even though the US had pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to delay the project.
The apartment complex of 31 units would be located in an already existing Jewish compound, called the Hizkiyahu neighborhood. It houses the Hebron Yeshiva and is home to six families that live in modular homes.
Hebron Jews hope it is the first of a number of structures they would like to see built in that stretch of Shuhadah Street which also houses the military base Plugat Hamitkanim.
The Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria debated the project on Monday as the initial part of a three-day meeting, in which plans for some 3,763 settler homes will likely be advanced.
Site of planned new Hebron building
Officials connected to the council told The Jerusalem Post
that the planning body had issued the permit for the construction but had yet to publish a formal announcement.
A number of related restrictions are attached to the project, the officials said.
Such housing approvals are rare in the biblical city to which all rightwing politicians claim historical and religious connection, but which is also one of the more contentious areas of the West Bank.
In 2011 the council approved the construction of a dormitory for the Hebron Yeshiva, and in 2002 approvals were given for 10 apartment units in Tel Rumeida.
Attorney Samer Shihadih, who represents the Hebron Municipality, said he intends to appeal the decision first within the Civil Administration and, failing that, he will turn to the High Court of Justice.
“The council convened solely to approve the project and did not allow us to properly present our case,” Shihadih said.
Hebron’s Jewish community welcomed the news, stating: “Building of the City of the Patriarchs by the Israeli government is a Zionist, just, necessary and blessed step.”
It thanked Netanyahu as well as the ministers and politicians who had participated in a public campaign for the project.
Skeptically, it added, “We ask everyone to ensure that the construction is indeed carried out without delay.”
The left-wing group Peace Now said, “While doing everything in his power to please a small group of settlers, Netanyahu is harming Israel’s morality and image abroad, while crushing basic values of human rights and dignity.”
The Jewish community has argued that it has the right to build on that spot because the property in question was owned by the city’s original Jewish community. It is located next to property owned by that community until it was destroyed by the 1929 Arab massacre in which 67 Jews were killed.
A plaque on the entryway to the complex explains that Hayyim Israel Romano built a Jewish apartment building at the site already back in 1876, which was then purchased in 1912 by the former Lubavitcher rebbe Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn to house the Torat Emet Yeshiva.
The British police commandeered the property in 1917 for their headquarters.
When the Jordanian army captured Hebron in 1948, it used the building as a school and built a bus terminal next to it.
When the city passed into Israeli hands after its victory in the Six Day War, the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave the property to the new Jewish community which returned to Hebron in 1979.
But the technicality of how land ownership works in the West Bank has legally made those points mute in the past.
After the Six Day War, the land was transferred to the custodian of absentee property, who continued to lease it to the municipality on the understanding that the city held a protected tenancy which allowed it to continue to use the property.
According to Peace Now, the IDF seized the land in the 1980s for military use and built Plugat Hamitkanim there, forcing the bus station to move to another location. Since then, six families have moved onto the part of the base that had belonged to the Lubavitcher rebbe.
The municipality has argued that the land is still under a protected lease and therefore cannot be used for Jewish development.
The Jewish community has, in turn, explained that the lease has since expired, and there is no prohibition against construction on that site.
Legal opinion in the Civil Administration and the Justice Ministry has been split on this issue. In 1991 the ministry held that the municipality’s lease had expired, while the Civil Administration’s legal adviser in 2007 argued that it was still in place.
The Hebron Jewish community has further contended that under the 1997 Hebron Agreement, they have a right to build on property that belonged to the pre-1929 community.
If the project is built, it would help extend the Jewish community’s hold on the stretch on Shuhadah Street that runs from Beit Hadassah to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and already includes the Avraham Avinu complex.
The authorization comes just three months after UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the surrounding Old Town where Shuhadah Street is located on the World Heritage List as a Palestinian World Heritage Site.
UNESCO is unlikely to consider that the project is in keeping with the historical nature of Old Town.
Since 1997 the city of over 220,000 Palestinians has been divided. Eighty percent of it is under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, and another 20% is under Israeli military rule, with some 1,000 Jews living in that section of the city.