Omar Karmi
The National
April 13, 2009 - 11:00pm

When Fayez Rajabi built a home for his family in the West Bank town of Hebron, he never imagined he would have to fight for more than two years to move into it.

Last December, the 45-year-old car parts dealer thought he might have cleared a major hurdle after the Israeli army evacuated some 250 settlers who had occupied the four-storey building for over a year and a half.

The evacuation made international headlines because the Israeli army rarely moves against Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. Hebron has always been a flashpoint for settler violence and aggressive expansion, but the state infrequently gets involved.

With the help of a local non-governmental agency, he had taken the case to Israel’s Supreme Court, which in Nov 2007 ruled that until ownership could be firmly established, the ultra-right activists must leave.

An army checkpoint has already been erected just outside the house and the settlers and Mr Rajabi have all been barred from entering until ownership has been determined.

The settlers claimed that they bought the house from a third party.

“Their [ownership] papers were clearly forged and the government was open to pressure,” Mr Rajabi said.

A verdict on the ownership of the house has yet to be reached, something Samer Shehadeh, Mr Rajabi’s lawyer, said could take up to a year.In the meantime, Mr Rajabi’s plans to move in have been dealt a further setback after he received a letter from the Israeli army commander in Hebron three weeks ago requesting to use the house as an observation post.

Mr Rajabi has rejected the request and Mr Shehadeh went to the High Court to get an injunction.

Already the army has erected two caravans and a generator just outside of the house and Mr Rajabi fears the military will declare the area a closed military zone and eventually confiscate his house.

“I am not afraid of the court, I am afraid of the new [Israeli] government. This is a government of extremists,” he said.

The army said in a statement that it was interested only in a security presence on the roof and next to the house, not in the ongoing ownership tussle, as it prepares for the possible reopening of a nearby road to Palestinian traffic.

Mr Shehadeh, however, confirmed that the army had first requested use of the whole house and only changed that position after the court injunction.

“The army wants to use the house as an observation post because it is on top of the hill,” he said.

Several buildings in the area in “sensitive” locations have been confiscated temporarily by the army, including a school on an adjacent hilltop. The military presence is meant to protect Jewish settlers in the city. Mr Shehadeh added, however, that underlying these moves were persistent attempts by settlers in the area to expand their presence.

He is currently representing three other families fighting off attempts by settlers to claim their homes.

Mr Shehadeh said Mr Rajabi was lucky to be able to afford legal representation.

“Settlers can afford a number of lawyers who work 24 hours to push their cases. The Palestinians have no money to afford a proper defence, but their case is just.”

Mr Rajabi’s house lies near the edge of the Kiryat Arba settlement in Hebron. Palestinians living in the neighbourhood have been unable to take their cars into the area for years because the road has been closed and there are frequent clashes with the Hebron-area settlers, mostly ultranationalists who believe they have divine entitlement to the land.

Hebron is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the sanctuary of Abraham, holy to both Muslims and Jews.

Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli army doctor who perpetrated the Hebron massacre in 1994, killing 29 worshippers at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, was from Kiryat Arba. His grave has become a place of pilgrimage for hard-line settlers from across the occupied West Bank.

The religious significance of Hebron means Jewish settlers are often able to secure the funding needed to buy land from poor Palestinian families, who are tempted by the cash. But such sales, legally dubious since the area is an occupied territory, can prompt a severe backlash from the local Palestinian community.

When settlers first moved into Mr Rajabi’s house in 2007, the Palestinian Authority reacted by summoning him to Jericho, where he was incarcerated for six months. PA security officials told Mr Rajabi it was for his own security as Hebron residents suspected he had sold the house himself.

“The settlers took my house and my own people put me in jail without a word or compensation. I don’t know where to turn. A mountain couldn’t carry this burden,” Mr Rajabi said.

Worn down by fighting, Mr Rajabi nevertheless refuses to give up.

It has been 15 years since he first purchased the land where the house stands and he said he was willing to wait another 15.


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