(photo credit: Peace Now)
The High Court of Justice on Wednesday rejected petitions by residents of the Palestinian village of Bil'in demanding that residential housing built in Matityahu East be torn down because permits allowing the building had been issued illegally.
A panel of three justices headed by Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin and including Ayala Procaccia and Miriam Na'or ruled that even though the buildings were built illegally, they had been legitimized retroactively so that the basis of the petition was no longer relevant.
Furthermore, the court ruled, the petitioners' demands would have caused severe hardship to hundreds of people who had bought their apartments without knowing the construction was illegal.
"Should we order the demolition of these buildings that were built illegally even though a second town planning scheme was [subsequently] approved which corrected the flaws?" wrote Na'or. "My answer is 'no.' This would be a disproportionate punishment under the circumstances. Innocent purchasers, some of whom are already living in the apartments, would be hurt. These innocent purchasers paid a heavy price (in more ways than one) during the interim period. Some of them bought their apartments from Heftsiba Construction which is currently in the process of ceasing operations and it is therefore unlikely that there would have been anyone from whom they could ask for their money back."
Na'or added that the court would suffice with the fact that the National Unit for Fraud Investigation had been ordered to launch a criminal investigation into the affair.
Modi'in East, a neighborhood of Modi'in Illit, is divided into two zones, the western and the eastern zones. All of the construction so far has taken place in the western zone. An estimated 750 apartments had been completed or were under way on January 6, 2006, when, in response to this petition, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction ordering all construction to be halted, instructing the building companies, including Heftsiba Construction, not to hand over ownership deeds to any more purchasers and prohibiting anyone who had not yet moved into his apartment from doing so.
That freeze was in effect until Wednesday's ruling. However, last month, hundreds of purchasers moved in despite the court order after hearing of the collapse of Heftsiba. The court did not order them to leave.
Their presence in the apartments is still illegal since they are formally trespassers. However, their status now is no different from that of the hundreds of other families who have moved into the unfinished Heftsiba apartments they purchased inside the Green Line.
On Tuesday, in a related development, the High Court ruled that the separation barrier, which was designed to include the western and eastern areas of Matityahu East, will be rerouted to bisect the neighborhood, leaving the eastern part on the West Bank side of the barrier. The fact that the court decided to keep the western area of Matityahu East within the protection of the barrier was a sure sign that it would legitimize the construction taking place there.