Purchased in 1807, the neighborhood may finally be redeveloped after a controversial expulsion.
It began in modern times with the murder of a baby. The incessant shooting attacks from the Abu Sneinah hills into the Jewish neighborhoods of Hebron eventually led to a sniper shooting a 10-month-old. It was then the Jewish residents began to use the old market stalls as cover. But the story goes back father than the killing of baby Shalhevet Pass in 2001.
It was in 1807 that Rabbi Haim Bejayo as the center of a ceremony attended by no less than 22 Arab dignitaries. As chief Sephardic Rabbi of the Jewish community, he led the Magen Avot organization that purchased the 5 dunan plot of land adjacent to what was then called the Jewish ghetto. This signed kushan, — Ottoman land deed — and others are still on display in the community and have been reprinted in books. These deeds held up in Israel’s Supreme Court decades later. It was a windfall for the growing 19th century Jewish community which had seen its ebbs and flows over the past 3,500 plus years.
Hebron is arguably the first Jewish community in the world, as Abraham and Sarah settled down and raised their family in the city. It is also the location of the first Jewish land purchase, as Abraham bought the Cave of Machpela and surrounding fields for 400 shekels, in a very public ceremony mirrored by the one in 1807. Today however, the few property transactions in the city are done clandestinely as Arabs who sell land to Jews are subject to the death sentence under Palestinian Authority law.
The land Rabbi Bejayo bought was used for community housing and a small synagogue utilized by Eliyahu Mani, Hebron’s long-time Sephardic Chief rabbi. His home along with the rest on the plot of land were demolished when the Jordanians took over in 1948. But up until then, the period was a relatively good one for Hebron. Rabbi Mani was a respected leader in both the Jewish and Arab communities. When he died in 1899 the Arab community wanted the honor of having him buried in a Muslim cemetery. But the seething animosity and stirring of nationalistic fervor came to a culmination in the 1929 Hebron massacre. Incited to violence by Haj Amin El Husseini, who later became a supporter of Adolph Hitler, the Arab residents of Hebron rose up against their Jewish neighbors. When it was over, 67 Jewish civilians had been killed and the survivors were deported to Jerusalem by the British authorities. Two years later, Rabbi Haim Bayajo, the grandson? of the man who initiated the land purchases a coupe generations earlier led his broken community back to the city of the Patriarchs. But their initiative only lasted five years. When Arab violence rose up again in 1936 in other parts of the country the British dealt with the problem by again deporting the community.
In 1948, as Israel declared independence, the surrounding Arab countries invaded and the Jordanian took over Hebron. For the next 19 years, no Jewish person was allowed entry into the city. The historic neighborhoods were demolished with the Avraham Avinu synagogue turned into a sheep pen. The Jordanians did little to develop the city, using Jewish-built sites such as Beit Hadassah and at Beit Romano as schools. One site in the old Jewish quarter was made a public latrine.
Finally in the early 1960s, Jordan built the wholesale market. Fresh fruits and vegetables were bought and sold from stalls built on the land that once housed the Jewish community. The dramatic Six Day war of 1967 brought Hebron back into Jewish hands. But repatriation was slow and the Israeli government was wary of rocking the boat. The government set up a custodian of absentee properties and leased the wholesale market stalls to Hebron’s Arab municipality. The market existed up until the early 1990s when Israel’s lease began to run out. It was the site of violence as the increasingly radicalized terrorist faction used it as cover. In 1982 Aharon Gross as murdered in the streets and his Arab killer escaped into the densely packed wholesale market. Today, Gross Square is named in his memory.
Terrorist attacks in Hebron reached a high point during 1993 – 1994. One such attack took place on Novemebr 14, 1993 in which Avraham Zarbib was attacked with an ax by a terrorist emanating from the wholesale market and was then grabbed by two other assailants. He survived his injuries. Avraham is the grandfather of Shalhevet Pass.
Finally in the aftermath of the 1994 Cave of Machpela shooting, riots swept the city and the market was shut down for security reasons and the vendors were either compensated by the Israeli government as protected tenants or moved to the flourishing new sections of the city.
Today, the Arab section of Hebron is the largest, most industrialized in the Palestinian Authority controlled areas. The thriving commercial distinct by Ein Sarah Street is filled with shops and stores and completely off limits to Israelis. This did not stop Arab residents from petitioning Israel’s Supreme Court for the right to the wholesale market. But the Israeli Defense Ministry and army, although wary of allowing more Jews to move in, also could not have the threat of terrorism in the heart of the old city. The final straw was a booby trapped teddy bear. The children’s toy was found in the wholesale market near the Avraham Avinu neighborhood with an explosive device attached.
In 1997, the city was divided in the Hebron Accords which created the H1 and H2 sections of the city. Meanwhile the old 1807 deed held up in a court case and the Jewish residents were declared the rightful owners although permission to inhabit the structures was denied.
The empty stalls sat vacant until the Second Intifada of 2000 – 2003. It was then the snipers began to perch on the over looking Abu Sneineh hills. The old wholesale market was the closest place to run for cover while the shooting was taking place. It was here that 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass was shot by sniper Mahmud Amro. An older sister was grazed by the bullet and her father, Yitzchak Pass was shot in the leg while he stood with the baby stroller.
The Jewish community decided to take matters into their own hands and began moving into the old wholesale market. Over the next couple years the converted the old stalls into habitable living quarters. The Kollel Rinat Shalhevet learning center was established on the site. By 2006 the were eight families living in them and the area was called Mitzpe Shalhevet.
In response to an Arab demand to reopen the market, the Attorney-General’s office notified the Supreme Court that: (1) the Arabs no longer had any legal rights to the market and (2) that Israeli “trespassers” would be evicted from the site. The Supreme Court, however, never ruled that the Jewish residents should be expelled. Following issuance of an eviction order, Hebron’s Jewish community appealed to the courts, claiming private Jewish ownership of the property. An appeals committee of three judges ruled 2-1 that the land did legally belong to a private Jewish organization, but that the buildings legally fell within the jurisdiction of the Israeli government.
Concurrently, two of the three judges ruled that the optimal solution to the problem was to lease the structures to Hebron’s Jewish community. This decision was rejected by Attorney General Eliyakim Rubenstein.
The day prior to the planned expulsion, community leaders met with General Yair Golan, commander of the Judea and Samaria District who offered them a deal. If the community would agree to voluntarily leave the apartments, the government would allow families to legally return within a few months. Following a debate and vote in the middle of the night, the community accepted the deal.
However other government echelons dismissed the deal and refused to allow a return to the property. Ten months after, two of the families who had agreed to move out of their homes decided to returned. A few weeks later the Supreme Court ruled that the government had the authority to again expel them, should they want to. The Israeli prosecutor’s office, together with the Civil Administration immediately issued expulsion orders. The resulting expulsion took place on August 6, 2007 and took thousands of IDF and police to accomplish. It was met with fierce criticism by many in the government.
After the eviction, Haim Hanegbi, a relative of Rabbi Haim Yeshua Bejayo publicly came out in support of the move. A founder of Matzpen, the Socialist Organization in Israel, Hanegbi’s party identified as anti-Zionist and opposed any Jews living in Hebron or any parts of Judea and Samaria. Hanegbi told some news outlets that he was the sole living heir to the property. His grandfather had been Rabbi Haim Bejayo (1873 – 1960), himself a descendant of the original Rabbi Haim Yeshua Bejayo of the 1800s. The younger Rabbi Bejayo was a survivor of the 1929 Hebron massacre and led the efforts to reestablished the community in 1931. However the Jewish community was evicted a second time by the British in 1936 during a new wave of riots that swept the country.
Haim Hanegbi went on to meet with Arab politicians in Hebron, pledging his support to their cause and deriding the Jewish community. However despite sharing the name of his grandfather, no court has ever agreed to his claim. Rabbi Haim Bajayo headed the Magen Avot Institution and was granted power of attorney for the property confiscated during the riots and taken over by the Jordanians. Rabbi Bejayo acted as an agent for the community and not for his family or heirs.
In the early 1950s, after the establishment of the State of Israel, the Ministry of Religious Affairs declared the Magen Avot organization to be guardians of Jewish property in Hebron. Thanks to this fact, Jewish people were able to locate their assets later when the community was reestablished after the Six Day War in 1967.
Although Hanegbi tried to organize family members of the old Jewish Jewish community, numerous elderly Hebron massacre survivors and their children publicly supported the new Jewish settlers. The Lubavitcher Rebbe granted his rights to Chabad-owned property from before the massacre to the new Jewish resettlement efforts and blessed the nascent Jewish community.
This brings us up to 2008, a busy year for Hebron. Although Jewish residents were forced to vacate the Beit HaMachpela building until the deeds could be verified, they were finally given rights to inhabit Beit Rachel and Beit Leah, two adjoining properties that the government originally insisted the residents vacate.
In October, the Defense Ministry and Knesset approved a plan to develop the Hezekiah Neighborhood, also on property purchased by the Jewish community in the 1800s. A week later, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced he was favorable to creating new apartments in the Mitzpe Shalhevet neighborhood. The old wholesale market stalls would remain with new housing units built atop them. The news came ten years since last inhabited, and 211 years after Rabbi Bejayo bought the land.
Originally published on en.hebron.org.il on Nov 8, 2018 here.