Mazuz: No deal on Hebron evacuation

Shai Nitzan echoes attorney general's assertions that no legally-binding deal was reached.

Shai Nitzan, Deputy State Attorney for Special Tasks, said on Tuesday morning that no agreement had been signed between the settlers in Hebron and the security establishment, despite claims to the contrary. He echoed similar statements made on Monday by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. Although Nitzan conceded that theoretically an agreement could have been made without his knowledge, he found the situation "hard to imagine." Nitzan said he knew of no security official who would have promised to let the settlers return after being evacuated without consulting other authorities. In the interview with Army Radio, he said the state had informed the High Court of Justice that the evacuation would be completed by February 15, and so it was. Nitzan noted that perhaps a verbal agreement had been reached, but such a compromise would hold no legal standing in the High Court of Justice. Mazuz denied on Monday that the government had reached an agreement with the Jewish settlement in Hebron regarding the evacuation of the homes in the city's wholesale market. The government had made it known long before that it was ready to consider leasing the buildings to the settlers - although not the current ones - in its replies to a petition currently under consideration by the High Court of Justice, said Mazuz. The state clarified its position again on December 15, 2005, when it told the High Court it was going to delay the expulsion of the settlers from the homes in the market for two months. "There is no compromise or compromise proposal by the state regarding the evacuation of the buildings in the Hebron wholesale market," said Mazuz in a statement to the media on Monday. "In view of the reports that have appeared in the media, the attorney-general wishes to make it clear that the voluntary evacuation [of the residents of the houses], should there be one, is not dependant on any compromise or concession on the part of the state and that the state did not make any promise to allow the buildings to be reoccupied." According to media reports and settlers' claims, the army has now promised to speed up the required procedures to enable Jewish settlers to move into the buildings legally. Mazuz said the government made its position clear in its response to a High Court petition filed by the Hebron Municipality against the army order expelling the Palestinian wholesale merchants and the subsequent occupation of the empty buildings by Jewish settlers. In its latest response, dated December 15, the state wrote: "Parallel to the evacuation of the stores, the authorized authorities will investigate the possibility of taking action to terminate the status of protected tenant currently enjoyed by the Hebron Municipality... "Should such a decision be taken, subject to the required laws and procedures, we will afterward consider the ways in which the buildings could be used, including the possibility of leasing them to Jewish settlers, conditional on authorization by the attorney-general and on condition that under no circumstances will the buildings be leased to the squatters [who originally moved into them without permission.]" In another development, a direct descendant of the original Jewish owner of the land upon which the Hebron wholesale market was built called on the government to allow him to decide what should be done with it. Journalist and left-wing activist Haim Hanegbi told The Jerusalem Post the land and buildings should be left in the hands of the Hebron wholesalers until a final agreement was worked out between Israel and the Palestinians, including a compensation settlement for land and property belonging to Israelis and Palestinians that ended up on the wrong side of the border. According to Hanegbi, the 1807 deed declaring the sale of the land to Haim Hamitzri (Haim the Egyptian), otherwise known as Haim Bejano, still exists and appeared in the 1970 Book of Hebron, which was published in honor of the Jews who had lived in Hebron up until the 1929 massacre, after which the survivors fled to Jerusalem. Hanegbi said his grandfather, also known as Haim Bejano, was the last rabbi of the Sephardic community in Hebron. Hanegbi, whose birth name was also Haim Bejano, said he was the rabbi's grandson and sole heir. In 1929, after the Jewish community fled from Hebron, local Arabs occupied the land and turned it into a wholesale market. Following the 1948 War of Independence, the Jordanian government took over ownership of the land and gave it to the Custodian of Abandoned Properties. He leased the land to the Hebron Municipality and gave it the status of protected tenant. The municipality allowed the Hebron wholesalers to continue working there. When Israel captured Hebron in 1967, Israel became the owner of the property and the Custodian of Abandoned Properties was put in charge of it. The wholesalers continued to work in the market as subtenants of the Hebron Municipality. In 1994, however, after the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein in the Machpela Cave, the army expelled the Palestinian merchants. The buildings remained empty until a Palestinian sniper killed a baby, Shalhevet Pass, in 2001. In protest, Jewish settlers moved into the buildings without permission and turned them into homes. When Jewish settlers returned to Hebron's old city after the Six Day War, they claimed that they were the inheritors of the pre-1929 Jewish community. That is the basis of their claim to the wholesale market. But Hanegbi said the settlers had no proof that they were the rightful heirs of the land purchased by his forefather. "Why should the settlers get it?" he said. "I demand that on every occasion when they make a claim to the property, my claim is also heard." Hanegbi's lawyer, Michael Sfard, presented his client's claims in a letter sent Monday to Mazuz and the legal adviser for the military government, Brig.-Gen. Yair Lottstein.