Hebron property dispute between Palestinians, settlers, causing controversy in KKL

The dispute surrounds the ownership of a residential building known as Beit Bakri in Hebron which was seized from its Palestinian owners by settler groups in the city in the early 2000s.

 Jews seen outside the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, on October 21, 2021. (photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)
Jews seen outside the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron, on October 21, 2021.
(photo credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

A legal fight between Palestinians and settlers over a property in Hebron spilled over into Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael–Jewish National Fund, whose board of directors is set to decide on Thursday whether or not to facilitate the efforts of a right-wing organization to claim ownership of the property.

The dispute surrounds the ownership of a residential building known as Beit Bakri in Hebron, which was seized from its Palestinian owners by settler groups in the city in the early 2000s.

An Israeli court ruled in 2019 that the building be evacuated by the settlers and that they pay substantive fees to the Palestinian owners, but ongoing legal wrangling and the controversial purchase by KKL-JNF of the building shortly before the ruling have complicated this process.  

One of the settler organizations involved in the seizure of Beit Bakri has now requested that KKL-JNF provide funds for its legal needs in the case, something which has created a deep political controversy within the organization.

Centrist and left representatives in KKL-JNF are strongly opposing the request to the board of directors that it provide funds for the legal needs of a settler organization involved in the illegal seizure of the property, saying that so doing would politicize KKL-JNF over an issue, Israel’s control of the West Bank and Hebron specifically, that is hotly disputed within Israel and the global Jewish community.

 View of a house belong to Jewish settlers in the West bank city Hebron on August 26, 2021. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90) View of a house belong to Jewish settlers in the West bank city Hebron on August 26, 2021. (credit: GERSHON ELINSON/FLASH90)

Right-wing factions in KKL-JNF insist, however, that the organization is simply protecting its own assets and that the organization has historically been involved in land purchases in the West Bank anyway.

The controversy began in 2001, when the Palestinian owners of the Beit Bakri multi-story residential building in the Tel Rumeida district of the city, close to the Jewish neighborhoods, were forced to leave due to restrictions imposed by Israel’s security forces on Palestinian residents at the time, during the Second Intifada, and due what they said was harassment by Jewish residents of the building owners.

Settler groups took control of the building following this development and eventually engaged in a fraudulent purchase of the property, which was later annulled by a ruling of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court in 2019 that ordered the settlers to evacuate the property and pay the Palestinian owners more than NIS 600,000 in usage fees and legal costs.

One settler who had taken up residence in the ground floor of the building requested a stay of the evacuation order due to the fact that KKL-JNF had in 2018 bought the ground floor of the building, along with several other properties in the West Bank, albeit in controversial circumstances and without the knowledge of the KKL-JNF’s board of directors. The individual in question argued that since KKL-JNF now owned the ground floor, he was a legal tenant and should not be removed.  

IN JULY of this year, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court granted this stay but required that the individual living on the ground floor owned by KKL-JNF pay NIS 180,000 as a guarantee that he would respect its final ruling.

The Association for Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron, which has been involved in claiming rights over Beit Bakri, subsequently filed a request to KKL-JNF that the organization pays the guarantee.

In September, the KKL-JNF executive denied the request by a vote of six to five, but it was brought back again in October and narrowly approved through the current double-voting privilege of KKL-JNF chairman Avraham Duvdevani.

That decision has now been appealed by center-left KKL-JNF representatives to the board of directors, however, and the issue is now scheduled to come to a vote this Thursday.

In the meantime, KKL-JNF has already paid nearly NIS 110,000 toward the guarantee, with another NIS 72,000 outstanding.

Gadi Perl, a member of the KKL-JNF board of directors for Masorti Olami, says that allowing the payment of the guarantee would deeply politicize KKL-JNF over an issue that is far from consensus within Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, both of whose behalf KKL-JNF is supposed to act.

“Regardless of any political views, there is no doubt that the house should not have been bought in the first place,” said Perl.

“To pay the guarantee now would be a de facto stamp of approval for both the squatting in Beit Bakri and later on the contentious purchase of this property,” he continued, adding that this would be “unfair toward the Palestinian owners and unfair toward the Jewish people represented in KKL-JNF.”

Perl argued that the Association for Renewal of the Jewish Community in Hebron has the resources to pay the guarantee itself; that the settler groups became entangled in legal proceedings before KKL-JNF bought the property; and that KKL-JNF should never have bought the property in the first place.

“I’m trying to stop KKL-JNF [from] becoming political, but the people who want to put money towards these goals are forcing it to become so and ruining its consensus status within the Jewish people,” said Perl.

David Etzioni, a member of the KKL-JNF executive of the Likud Party who brought the request to pay the guarantee to the directorate, said the issue was mere that KKL-JNF as an organization had a responsibility to protect its own assets and rejected the notion that paying the guarantee was a political step.

Etzioni said that KKL-JNF would act the same way regarding any other asset it owned anywhere else and that the only reason it was being opposed was that the property in question is in Hebron, a highly contested and contentious city.

“They are bringing politics into KKL-JNF. The first responsibility of a company is to protect itself and its assets,” said Etzioni, insisting that KKL-JNF has in the past bought land in Judea and Samaria and should continue to do so.

There are currently 17 right-wing members of the board of directors and 15 centrist, progressive Jewish and left-wing members, along with seven representatives from Zionist organizations including Hadassah, Wizo, Bnei Brit, Na’amat, Emunah, World Sephardi Federation and Maccabi.

The centrist and left-wing factions are hoping that those organizations take a stance on the issue and prevent approval for payment of the guarantee.