A Modicum of Justice in the City of Our Fathers

Me’aras Hamachpelah

In any country in the world, buying a house is a pretty straightforward matter. You find a property that interests you, make an offer that is acceptable to the owner, obtain financing, sign a contract, and call the movers.

But for a Jew, in Chevron — the oldest Jewish community in the world — it’s anything but straightforward, as those who purchased Beit Machpelah have discovered.

The problems start with laws that go back to the British Mandate that allow “homesteaders” to lay claim to property if their presence there is not challenged for a decade. The problems continue with dubious claims of ownership by Arabs who never paid for the land but who were given it by the Jordanian monarchy before 1967 in a haphazard fashion.

Further complicating matters is a law on the Palestinian Authority books that makes selling land to Jews a crime punishable by death. That means that Jews who want to buy homes in Chevron or elsewhere in Yehudah and Shomron — including parts of eastern Yerushalayim — have to go through third parties, sometimes traveling abroad to meet with the owner’s agents, where they make full payment and sign a contract.

The necessarily surreptitious nature of the deal opens the door to all kinds of challenges. At the urging of Israeli leftists, Arabs challenge the Jewish claim of ownership, arguing either that there was no sale or that the Jews bought it from the wrong party, someone who wasn’t the real owner. Dozens of Arabs are convinced to file an appeal, leading the Civil Administration — the Israeli military entity responsible for Yehudah and Shomron — to prevent the Jewish purchaser from taking possession of his home.

The fact that the Arab claims of ownership are in many cases backed up by nothing more than hearsay is beside the point. It’s enough to prevent the property from being registered in the name of the Jewish owners, making it impossible for them to move in.

In the case of Beit Machpelah, 15 Jewish families moved into the building five years ago after purchasing it from a Palestinian agent representing the family (who was later arrested by the Palestinian Authority).

When the predictable Arab challenge came, then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded by evicting the Jewish residents and sealing the building. This despite a ruling by the State Attorney that the property belonged to its Jewish purchasers, based on the sales documents and evidence presented, and that the building should be registered in their names.

Over the years the registration process was renewed and then halted and then renewed again. Two months ago it was renewed, but a new Arab petition is demanding that it be halted because ownership is being disputed, and that the building should remain vacant until a decision is made about who owns it.

The attorney general gave the residents of Beit Machpelah a week to leave, but, on Sunday night, as the deadline was running out, the High Court said there was no need to evict the residents until the petitioners and Civil Administration show cause why those evictions should take place. The petitioners were given until September 10 to do so.

It is unfair and untenable that Jews should have such difficulty purchasing land in Eretz Yisrael, especially in Chevron, where Avraham bought a plot for Sarah, where Dovid Hamelech was anointed king of Israel and ruled for seven years.

As one of the attorneys for the Beit Machpelah residents noted: “We are fortunate that there was no Civil Administration in the days of Avraham Avinu, because if there were, Sarah Imeinu would not be buried in Me’aras Hamachpelah.”

The irony is that the same Civil Administration refuses to take action against illegal Arab building aimed at preventing Jewish contiguity in some areas.

It is time to put an end to the Civil Administration’s bullying of Jews solely because they are Jewish.

The ruling is only temporary, buying time until September 10, but it is a good sign.

Another good sign is that the government has finally granted the Jewish community independence from the Palestinian Authority-controlled Chevron local authority. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week signed the order that turned the place where the Jewish community lives — the area around Me’aras Hamachpelah and Tel Rumeida — into its own entity.

The new entity can negotiate contracts for municipal services, purchase land and make zoning decisions, and conduct tenders. It will also be in charge of policies on education, health, environmental issues and other civil matters that affect residents.

The Jewish community in Chevron was reestablished permanently in 1979. Its recognition as a local authority capable of running its affairs and of its residents’ rights to buy homes like Jews anywhere around the world are long overdue.