Attorney Michael Sfard warned on Sunday he would file contempt-of-court charges against purchasers of apartments under construction in Modi'in Illit by the Heftsiba Company who forcibly entered the units last weekend. Heftsiba is reportedly bankrupt, and the buyers fear losing what they paid for the apartments. Sfard represents Palestinian residents of Bil'in and Peace Now in a series of four related petitions involving the construction of the Matityahu East neighborhood in the mainly haredi town of Modi'in Illit.
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The legal situation regarding the Heftsiba apartments in Matityahu East differs from the situation of apartments under construction by the company inside the Green Line. In the latter case, the forcible entry into the apartments is a matter of illegal trespassing, which is a violation of the criminal code. However, in the case of Matityahu East, the forcible entry not only violates the criminal code; it also violates an interim injunction handed down by the High Court of Justice on January 12, 2006.
According to the order, all construction in Matityahu East is to stop until the legal questions surrounding the zoning plan and building permits are resolved. But the order, handed down by Justice Ayala Procaccia, also stated that "all actions involving moving into the apartments in the area will cease immediately and, at this time, no deeds of ownership will be transferred to purchasers and their entry and use of the property is hereby forbidden."
The interim injunction issued then is still in effect.
Meanwhile, the haredi squatters of Modi'in Illit are blaming Peace Now for causing the financial collapse of Heftsiba.
"If not for Peace Now's High Court petition against the Heftsiba project here in Modi'in Illit, the company might not even have gone bankrupt," said Natan Rosenblatt, a Breslav Hassid who heads a group of a few hundred squatters that forcibly took possession of apartments in Matityahu East. "There is a lot of hatred against Peace Now among the residents here," said Rosenblatt.
Heftsiba, one of the country's largest building contractors, has an estimated NIS 1.6 billion in debt owed to banks, subcontractors and other creditors.
Heftsiba was the biggest builder for the haredim, with about 1,600 apartments under construction for the sector. About 30 percent of the firm's activities were targeted for haredi buyers.
According to Rosenblatt, in addition to other financial difficulties that paralyzed Heftsiba, Peace Now's High Court petition, which froze the sale of hundreds of apartments in Matityahu East for over a year, caused a sharp, unexpected cut in the construction firm's cash flow.
The setback in Modi'in Illit, accompanied by the other financial problems that plagued Heftsiba, precipitated the firm's demise.
"We did not come here as right-wing settlers," said Rosenblatt. "The haredi residents of Modi'in always have always had a terrific relationship with our Arab neighbors. We brought them business and jobs. Peace Now not only caused us a lot of damage and heartache, they also hurt the Arabs."
The court's interim injunction had nothing to do with misdeeds on the part of the purchasers. Peace Now and the head of the Bil'in village council, Issa Yassin, represented by Sfard, charged that Heftsiba and another construction company, Green Park, had begun building residential housing on the basis of a zoning plan that had not been approved. The zoning plan, which was in effect when the local council granted building permits and construction began, called for much smaller buildings and about half the population density.
The permits were issued on the basis of a new zoning plan which had been drafted for the neighborhood, but not finally approved. The court granted the temporary injunction on that basis.
In another petition, also filed by Peace Now and Bil'in residents, Sfard charged that much of the land upon which Matityahu East was being built belonged to Bil'in farmers and had been taken over by the state in a duplicitous manner. According to the petition, a company working on behalf of Jewish settlement, the Fund for Land Redemption, claimed to have bought the land from Palestinian landowners. However, because selling land to Jews was a crime calling for the death sentence, the owners of the land allegedly did not sign the deed of sale. According to the petition, the alleged purchasers informed the state that they had bought the land but did not want to claim ownership for fear of risking the life of the Palestinian sellers. The state then asked the West Bank military commander and the Custodian of Government Property in the Judea and Samaria area to declare that land state property.
The state also allegedly skipped the first registration procedure, which involved proving that the Palestinians had sold the land. The onus of proof of ownership was transferred to the Palestinians. When no one claimed that the land was theirs, it was declared state land, even though it had been purchased by the settlers. This land was then incorporated into the Matityahu East zoning plan.
The High Court is still deliberating on this petition, as well.
Meanwhile, on February 25, the Higher Planning Council for the Judea and Samaria area approved the new zoning law according to which the apartments had been built or were being built before the court handed down the interim injunction.
At this point, attorneys for the construction companies asked the High Court to retroactively accept the legality of the housing and cancel the injunction. However, Peace Now and Bil'in residents petitioned again, this time against the planning council's approval of the new zoning plan for Matityahu East. Sfard charged that the decision included eight flaws that rendered the procedure improper.
One of the flaws, he said, was the planning council's refusal to hear objections from the Bil'in residents who claimed that hundreds of dunams included in the neighborhood belonged to them.
Sfard told The Jerusalem Post that during a recent court hearing on the matter, several justices were highly critical of the government's behavior.
The court refused to accede to the construction companies' request to lift the interim injunction.
Sfard added that he sympathized with the purchasers of the Heftsiba apartments but felt they were still better off than the residents of Bil'in, who allegedly lost hundreds of dunams of land through deception. He argued that the residential buildings in Matityahu East should be dismantled and the land belonging to the Palestinians restored to them. The purchasers should be compensated by the government, which was responsible for their troubles in the first place, he said.
"The Palestinians of Bil'in have no one to help them," said Sfard. "The purchasers of the homes can go to the government, the civil administration in the West Bank, and the local authority in Modi'in Illit who were responsible for the fact that they bought apartments that were illegally built."