In March 2007 Settlers in the ever fraught city of Hebron took over a house on the road between the Jewish neighbourhood of Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city’s historic centre. They renamed the building Beit HaShalom (Peace House) and moved a number of families into the building. The Palestinian owner of the building protested this seizure of his property and his appeal was taken to the Israeli courts who promptly instructed that the Jews who had taken the house should be evicted from it.
In December 2008, despite the evidence produced by the Settlers to demonstrate their purchase of the building the Israeli army removed the Jews from the building amidst some of the most violent scenes between civilians and the military witnessed in Israel’s history. However, as far as the liberal consensus was concerned justice had been done; Jews had been prevented from expanding their illegal takeover of Palestinian land and property, no further questions asked.
Yet, there were many questions that should have been asked and that still need asking. The evidence, which was well known at the time, including a video tape no less, very clearly demonstrated that the Palestinian owner of the building was simply lying, he had indeed sold the property to Jewish buyers; for the grand total of just under $1 million dollars. And the courts had every reason to believe he was lying; under the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority selling property to Jews carries the death penalty. However, it is only now, after five years of contention and costly court battles that the Israeli justice system has finally conceded that the property does indeed belong to its Jewish buyers and that the Israeli military, who have been occupying the building in the interim, must return it to its Jewish owners, although they may still be prevented by the authorities from actually living in their house.
The question persists of why it was that the court had initially been so readily willing to believe the account of the Palestinian in question, in spite of all the evidence and the fact that there was every reason to think that given the circumstances, he would be unable to ever tell the truth about having sold property to Jews.
The other question that must surely bother anyone is not simply that of why it was that the Jewish residents had to be expelled from the house while its ownership was being established, but more to the point why was the evacuation carried out in such a violent manner? Much of the international press and indeed sections of the Israeli media reported the event in terms of Settler violence. The figures speak for themselves however. During the eviction 30 people were injured, 1 of them a member of the security forces, 29 of them Jewish civilians. Indeed, in the course of the evacuation the military fired rounds of teargas and aggressively dragged the residents from their home.
These scenes were reminiscent of the shocking events witnessed at Amona in 2006 where unlike the mostly peaceful expulsions of Israeli’s from the Gaza, at Amona mounted riot police unleashed an assault on the community that saw 200 hundred people injured including two members of the Israeli parliament, one demonstrator was even trampled by a horse. And while the recent evacuation of the Jewish village of Migron was for the most part peaceful, one officer was heard shouting to his men to ‘kill’ the Settlers during the evacuation.
The level of unrestrained hatred and incitement that is building towards Jews who find themselves living on the ‘wrong side’ of the 1949 armistice line would be far more alarming if it hadn’t become quite so familiar. The idea that there is something illegitimate about Jews living in places like Hebron or indeed anywhere in the West Bank is as misguided as it is historically illiterate. Jews are of course indigenous to the Middle East and in saying that I refer not to the time of the Romans but to the fact that until the mid-20th century most major cities in the region had thriving Jewish populations. Hebron was no exception, particularly on account of it being home to Judaism’s second holiest religious site. The road that Beit HaShalom sits along is the primary route used by Jewish pilgrims to reach the Tomb of the Patriarchs and during the Second Intifada it was repeatedly subject to attacks in which Jewish worshippers were murdered by Islamist terrorists. Securing this building will make the route considerably safer so bolstering freedom of religion in the city, now that this unjust occupation of a disputed house has been called to an end.