For those who are home, and for those who are on the way. For those who support the historic and just return of the land of Israel to its people, forever loyal to their inheritance, and its restoration.
Friday, March 30, 2012
Shragai - Between a rock and a holy place: Jewish-owned property in Hebron
30 March '12..
Yosef Ezra’s ancestors arrived in the Land of Israel in 1492, choosing to settle in Gaza, then home to a thriving Jewish community. The family stayed there for nine months, but due to the spread of disease moved to Hebron, the City of the Patriarchs, and lived there for 454 years. After the 1929 riots, in which 67 Hebron Jews were butchered, the British evacuated the Jewish residents from the city. Still, despite the warnings sounded by the Jewish National Council, 36 Sephardic families, including the Ezra family, returned to their homes. They were received by the Arabs of Hebron with bread, salt and requests for forgiveness.
Yosef Ezra, now 80, was born two years after the Hebron massacre and was still a preschooler when the bloody events of the Great Arab Revolt broke out in 1936. Dozens of Sephardic families who had returned to Hebron after the 1929 massacre cleared out once again that year, this time for good. But the Ezra family stayed on, the last Jewish family in Hebron.
Ezra’s father continued to buy dairy products from Hebron villagers, which he used to make fine cheeses at the dairy production plant inside his home. Yet on the day after the U.N. approved the establishment of the state of Israel, when it became clear that Hebron would remain inside the political boundaries of the kingdom of Jordan, the Ezra family left Hebron for the newly created Jewish state. Yosef Ezra was a teenager at the time.
Now the Ezra family home is at the center of what on the surface appears to be a legal dispute which in the next few weeks will likely take the place of the Migron controversy as the most pressing issue in the government’s “settlements” file.
The High Court of Justice has given the state one month to choose one of two options. It can either evict the two Jewish families who entered the home -- located in the city’s Triangle Market -- without authorization a few years ago, as Peace Now is demanding. Or it can offer an explanation to the judges as to why it will not evict these families.
This decision will, to a large extent, be precedent-setting. If the government opts for eviction, it will be the first eviction in the area since the 2008 evacuation of Beit Hashalom, located between Hebron and Kiryat Arba. The fate of this home is still being deliberated in the courts.
If the government decides to adopt a legal framework that would enable the Jews to remain there, it would be the first time since the first Netanyahu government that an Israeli administration officially sanctions the renewed settlement of Jews in the Israeli-controlled portion of Hebron.
The last time this happened was 14 years ago, after the signing of the Hebron Accords. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “compensated” the settlers after he agreed to a deal that they had opposed, authorizing the construction of a residential building in Tel Rumeida as well as the Nahum and Judea Home in the heart of Hebron. The project was designated as an extension of the residential complex adjacent to the Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Jewish families currently reside in the Nahum and Judea Home, and on the ground floor are two shops that in the past were rented out to Arabs. These shops were illegally converted into small apartments where two Jewish families now live. Over the course of the last year, the High Court has been hearing arguments that focus solely on the future of these two apartments. The result of these deliberations could be critical in terms of the precedent it sets and the consequences for Jewish-owned property in Hebron, much of which remains abandoned today.
It would appear that Peace Now has the upper hand in this case. The High Court acceded to its request earlier this month and ordered the state to explain why it has yet to enforce the eviction notice that the Civil Administration’s appellate committee published five years ago. The state has until just after the Independence Day holiday to explain its position.
But the High Court also determined that the state could offer an explanation as to why the residents should not be evicted. The same appellate committee that issued the eviction order is the same one that outlined and touted before the state and the settlers a legal framework that will enable the Jews to remain in Beit Ezra.
The settlers tried to implement it, but the state took the approach that advocated, “Sit still and do nothing.” It did not evict the settlers as it was instructed to by the appellate panel, nor did it seek to adopt the legal framework which that same committee recommended and which would have enabled the Jews to remain where they were.
Now the High Court is forcing the state to decide one way or another.
Fearing a wave of litigation
Here is a synopsis of the saga that has enveloped Beit Ezra ever since the family fled the home on the day after the U.N. voted to approve the partition of Palestine and establish a Jewish state.
Like all Jewish-owned property in Hebron, the Ezra family home was transferred into Jordanian custodianship responsible for enemy assets. The Jordanians also gained ownership of the property on which the shops were built, and these assets were rented out to Arab merchants.
After the Six-Day War, the Israeli custodian who supplanted the Jordanian executor continued to lease the shops to Arab merchants, who at the time had supposedly gained a legal status as residents entitled to protection statutes.
Yet for years Yosef Ezra fought for the return of his property. At the very least, he demanded that his home be inhabited by Jewish residents of Hebron. The government, however, rejected his appeals, just as it turned down similar requests in the past. It was fearful of the political and diplomatic fallout that would result from a burgeoning Jewish presence in Hebron, just as it feared that acceding to Jewish legal claims on abandoned property in Hebron would ignite a wave of lawsuits from Arabs demanding restitution for Arab property that was abandoned before 1948 within the boundaries of Israel proper.
When the “Oslo War” (“the Second Intifada”) erupted, all of the shops in the area were shuttered for security reasons. For years, they were left desolate. The Jewish community in Hebron, together with the Ezra family, repeatedly pleaded with the government to allow Jewish families to take up residence in the shops, but to no avail. A few years ago, the Hebron settlers decided to establish facts on the ground. They entered the shops, renovated them and converted them into livable spaces. In response to a request from Peace Now, the NGO opposed to a Jewish presence in Hebron, the state issued eviction orders against the Jews, which was followed by a series of discussions and deliberations held by the military appellate committee of the Civil Administration.
‘The merchants have no right’
The ruling that will be issued at the conclusion of these military-judicial deliberations could serve as a solid indicator as to what the future holds for Beit Ezra. Behind the scenes, there are two divergent views. There is the state prosecutor’s inclination to order the removal of the Jews from Beit Ezra, and there is the tack adopted by the political leadership and Likud officials who want to enable the Jews to continue living in the apartments.
In a May 2008 ruling issued by a panel of military judges, the tribunal criticized the supervisor of government property whose jurisdiction includes abandoned Jewish assets throughout Judea and Samaria.
“It is incumbent on the overseer to manage and preserve all government property that falls under his purview,” the judges noted. “When the property stands empty and abandoned, this duty goes unfulfilled ... Allowing property to go unutilized by any persons does not constitute adequate management of the asset and yields no utility to the public ...The overseer ... must act according to law and maintain the shops that are under his custodianship and to derive the maximum economic benefit from them.”
The judges recognized Yosef Ezra as the representative of the original owners of the property, ruling that the state “must view his will as the will of the owners of the property.” The judges emphasized in their ruling that Ezra expressed an explicit desire “for the asset to be leased to the Jewish residents of Hebron.”
Another significant conclusion that the judges reached was that the Arab merchants who were making use of the property had no right to the asset, and that the only recourse they had – if they were able to prove that they rented the shops legally – was to receive financial compensation for the termination of their lease agreement.
As for the Jewish residents, the judges determined that they entered the shops in Beit Ezra without authorization from the overseer, and thus they were required to vacate the premises immediately. But in the next breath, they noted that the presence of the Jewish families had significantly improved the state and condition of the property, and that the overseer should consider this as a major factor in his decision. The judges wrote: “A rule of thumb that is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition says that one who relinquishes property can still derive benefit from it. To a fairly high degree of certainty, one reaches the conclusion that the only way to ensure proper and effective utilization of the property under the present circumstances is to permit the families ... to live in the shops.”
The judges suspended the eviction notices for 60 days. They ruled that during this timeframe Yosef Ezra and the Jewish community of Hebron could submit a request to allocate the property to their custodianship, and they instructed the “overseer” to reply to the request within 30 days. Four years have passed since then. The overseer did not reply. The families remained in their apartments, and Peace Now petitioned the High Court, which is now telling the state: Decide!
‘We’ll respect any decision’
This story is replete with mundane legalese and judicial concepts, yet the crux of this controversy is political and ideological in nature. Peace Now sees Jewish settlement of Hebron as “the mother of all sins,” the embodiment of all that is wrong with “the occupation,” a provocation, and an obstacle to peace. For years its members have devoted significant efforts to hinder the Jewish presence there, to prevent Jewish expansion of residences, and, if possible, to evict them from the city. From Peace Now’s point of view, the Jew in Hebron is the oppressor and usurper of rights, while the Arab is the victim.
On the other hand, the settlers of Hebron consider inhabiting this area as the realization of a natural, historic and religious right, a continuation of the story of our forefathers and the Cave of the Patriarchs, and a natural progression of development and growth for a community that has survived there for hundreds of years – until the events of 1929. They also declared that if the security situation changes and as a result the IDF permits the Arab merchants to return to the shops which were converted into apartments, they would vacate them.
Rabbi Tziyon Elmaliach, who lives on the premises with his wife Tirza and their 11 children, says that there is nothing more natural than Jews living in Hebron. Recalling the 1929 riots, he asks rhetorically: “You murder us, and then you inherit our property? Do the descendants of the Arabs who dispossessed the Jews from their homes and murdered them now wish to prevent the inheritors of the murdered from returning to these homes?”
Elmaliach teaches at a school. His wife is a nurse. They have been living in Hebron for 18 years. Before moving to the city, they lived in Kiryat Arba. “When you see all the ruins and abandoned property of what was Jewish-owned property in the Triangle Market, you begin to understand that it is a normal thing for Jews to regain what they once owned in the past and to renovate it and rehabilitate this property,” he said. “We did this bit by bit, with two tiny apartments. A normal government should have done it ‘huge,’ [by renovating] all the abandoned property and ruins on the ground where Jews once lived and which belongs to Jews.”
“We are not going up against the state,” the rabbi said. “We will fight to convince people, and we believe we will succeed in convincing them, but we will respect whatever is decided.”
‘I donated land to a mosque’
Even the 80-year-old Yosef Ezra, who today lives in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem, believes that history and justice favor the restitution of Jewish-owned property, including that of his family, to its rightful proprietors. He does not see any symmetry between the demand for Jewish restitution in Hebron and the Arab demand for a right of return or restitution of Arab property from inside the Green Line that was abandoned in 1948.
“Every war has its own results,” Ezra said. “This is the payment that the Arabs need to fork over for the nonsense that they did.” From his point of view, the settlers of Hebron are full-fledged pioneers who are holding Jewish property in trust, a prelude to the property’s being fully restored to Jewish ownership in the future, at least in the eyes of the law.
Ezra is not too eager to delve deeply into the topic. The High Court decided earlier this month to add his name as a respondent to Peace Now’s petition. The court even demanded that he produce evidence of rightful ownership of the property. “I don’t want to harm my chances there because of a newspaper article,” he said.
This is not the first time that we are chatting. When I spoke to him on previous occasions, he would tell stories about his father, who for years passed intelligence tips to David Raziel, the commander of the Irgun underground. He also spoke of his brother, Shalom, who fell during the fateful battle for Gush Etzion during the War of Independence.
Ezra described an era that is long gone in Hebron, a time of good neighborly relations and respect between Jews and Arabs. “Ties were so good that as a token of good neighborliness, my family gave the Arabs of Hebron a plot of land which was later used to build a mosque that today stands opposite the Avraham Avinu synagogue,” he said.
According to Ezra, the residents of Hebron did not know how to reciprocate. “Abdel J’aud Mohammed Yosef Al-Awiwi, one of the petitioners listed in the Peace Now petition submitted to the court, is the grandson of Al-Awiwi, who worked for my father as a shepherd. His grandfather would bring the herd back to a holding pen that was right next to the property, which has been converted into an apartment where Jews live. Now they want to remove Jewish families from this property, but they won’t succeed. I will fight this with all my strength.”
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I visited Hevron in November 2000 after the outbreak of the Rosh Hashanah War to see what could be done to assist in the face of the growing daily attacks on the community. After returning to work for the community in the summer of 2001, a bond and a love was forged that grows to this day. My wife Melody and I merited to be married at Ma'arat HaMachpela and now host visitors from throughout the world every Shabbat as well as during the week. Our goal, "Time to come Home!"