Barak: I won't demolish Ofra houses now

Settlers' advocates claim military authorities okayed entire settlement, including the disputed homes.

settlement ofra 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
settlement ofra 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A day before a High Court of Justice hearing on what Palestinians argue are houses in Ofra built on Palestinian land, Defense Minister Ehud Barak informed the court Sunday that he would not execute the demolition orders against the houses at this time. A letter was sent Sunday from the State Attorney's Office to the Court explaining the defense minister's position, which stated that "because these buildings were populated many months ago, and because they are located inside and not on the margins of the settlement, this issue should be considered with a comprehensive view of the entire settlement of Ofra. "Thus, no unique policy should be determined regarding these buildings alone," as they have similar status to a number of other structures in the community. Yesh Din and B'Tselem had filed a petition on behalf of residents of the neighboring village of Ein Yabrud, in which they addressed nine houses they say were built on privately owned Palestinian plots, against which there are valid demolition orders that the state has refrained from executing. Settlers' advocates, however, argue that the entire settlement of Ofra - including the section in which the houses are built - was okayed by the military authorities. The nine houses, both sides agree, are located well within the perimeter of Ofra and are interspersed among previously existing buildings. Yesh Din attorney Michael Sfard said Sunday that in the first hearing held on the houses last June, the IDF's representative had said in the name of the defense minister that the houses were in face illegally built on Palestinian land, and must therefore be destroyed. "The construction of the houses and their occupation are illegal," wrote the state's representative, attorney Avi Licht. "The construction was carried out in violation of stop-work and demolition orders." At that time, the court issued an interim injunction that forbade anybody from living in the nine houses, or from connecting the houses to the community's infrastructure, including electricity and water. But less than two weeks later, on June 13, Ofra and the Binyamin Regional Council informed the court that the petitioners were too late. The houses had already been inhabited and therefore the request for an interim injunction was irrelevant. Licht claimed that settlers had continued work on the plots even after they had received stop-work orders over a year before the petition was initially filed. But in a letter from attorney Akiva Sylvetsky, who represents the Ofra Local Council, to Licht, Sylvetsky wrote, "the work on the houses began in June 2007. The construction wasn't concealed and was known to all. "Therefore, my clients understood that under the circumstances, there was no objection to the construction in the same way as there was no objection to the construction of all the other houses in Ofra and that the military and political echelons did not oppose it." For now, then, the Defense Ministry has decided to sit and wait until the court ultimately rules on the petition. "I am optimistic regarding the court tomorrow," said Sylvetsky. "The state has now come to the logical conclusion that there is no logic that people should be evicted from their houses before the final ruling," he said. "The interim order is meant to freeze the legal status, not to change it by evicting the residents." Sfard, however, suggested that the timing of Barak's decision seemed suspiciously coincident to the Labor Party leader's attempts to join the Likud-led coalition. "He's trying to show that he can toe their line," said Sfard. Barak's decision to halt the demolitions was welcomed by settler leaders. "I'm happy that the defense minister made what is the most normal decision that he could," with respect to the Ofra homes, said Pinchas Wallerstein, an Ofra resident and the director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The Binyamin Citizen's Committee issued a statement, saying, "this decision is an encouraging sign that the Defense Ministry, from now on, will stop caving in to the influence of the extreme left, which is anti-Zionist, and which has tried to destroy the Zionist vision in a systematic way in recent years."