HEBRON, West Bank – Four stalls in a trash-filled, abandoned outdoor market have turned into hotly contested real estate in the center of biblical Hebron where several hundred ultranationalist Jewish settlers are wrestling with Palestinian residents for control, house by house and storefront by storefront.
The stalls' Palestinian tenants want Israel's Supreme Court to evict settlers who seized the properties a decade ago, but some in Israel's pro-settler government believe the small shops should remain in Jewish hands.
Such an outcome would boost one of the most controversial endeavors of the Jewish settlement enterprise — tightening Israel's hold over the center of the West Bank's largest Palestinian city.
"The fight is over the character of Hebron and the old city area," said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group.
The first group of settlers moved into Hebron in 1968, a year after Israel captured the city, along with the rest of the West Bank, from Jordan. Over the years, the community has grown to about 800 people who live in several heavily guarded compounds, separated from the city's 180,000 Palestinian residents by barbed wire, blast walls and hundreds of Israeli soldiers.
Settler leader Noam Arnon said the community hopes to expand in what he called "Jewish areas" in the center where Palestinian access is limited and which he said make up about 3 percent of the city. This includes real estate owned by Jews who lived in Hebron before Israel's creation in 1948, he said.
Settlers say they are ready to co-exist in Hebron with the Palestinians, but argue that the city — which looms large in Jewish history but now serves as the center of Palestinian commerce in the West Bank — must remain under Israeli control. That runs counter to the Palestinian demand for a state in all the lands Israel captured in 1967 — the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank.
Over the years, Israeli governments have maneuvered between the settlers and the Palestinians.
Israel transferred 80 percent of Hebron to Palestinian self-rule as part of interim peace deals in the late 1990s, but retained control over the rest, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews as the traditional burial place of Abraham and other biblical figures.
More than a decade ago, as the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli military rule erupted, the army boosted protection around the settler compounds. It also carved out a wide path for Israelis into downtown Hebron from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to the city. Palestinians can't drive along this route and Palestinians on foot are barred from a small part of it.
Hundreds of Palestinian shops in the downtown area were either sealed by the army or had to close for lack of customers kept away by protracted curfews. The streets in the once thriving shopping district are deserted and rows of storefronts are shuttered. Some Palestinians have put up wire mesh to protect against stones hurled by settlers.
Palestinian activists are trying to reclaim the ancient old city next to the settler enclaves and have renovated hundreds of apartments with funding from Arab states and the Palestinian Authority. Community organizer Emad Hamdan said several thousand have returned to the old city, lured by rent-free apartments.
Ofran of Peace Now said there is concern that "eventually all the closed areas will be for the settlers and that's what the settlers want," she said.
The stalls of the wholesale market next to the Avraham Avinu settler compound are a prime target for expansion. The market was built on land owned by Jews, Ofran said. After the outbreak of the second uprising in 2000, the army barred Palestinians from entering the market because of its proximity to Avraham Avinu.
Two settler families took over four stalls next to the settlement and turned them into homes. These stalls stand on a parcel held by the Ezra family, which left before the city came under Jordanian rule in the late 1940s. Jordan's Custodian of Enemy Property took over the market and rented the stalls to Palestinian residents, as protected tenants.
The Awawi family rented the four stalls now under dispute, selling clothes and shoes. The rental agreement remained in place after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967.
Abdel Razek Awawi, 82, said his six sons worked with him in the market and his father and grandfather before him. He said a member of the Ezra family asked him after 1967 to leave the shop so he could rent it to settlers. Awawi said he refused.
"I rented it legally, and no one can take that from me," said Awawi, whose demand to have the settlers evicted is currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
Yosef Ezra, a Jerusalem resident listed as an heir in court papers, declined comment.
Orit Struck of Avraham Avinu said that since Palestinians won't be able to reclaim the market for security reasons, the stalls should be used by Jews, rather than being abandoned.
Last month, members of a newly established Israeli ministerial committee on settlements recommended that the stalls be handed to Jews after evicting the settlers living there now, said Danny Danon, a pro-settler lawmaker in the governing Likud Party. Israel's attorney general expressed concerns about breaking the lease of the Palestinian tenants, according to the Haaretz daily.
The government must present its position to the Supreme Court by Sept. 13.
Ofran noted that settlers were previously evicted from other market stalls by Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and that allowing them to stay could pave the way for more takeovers. She also said that if the government allows the Ezras to reclaim property in Hebron, this could open the door for Palestinian claims to recover property in what is now Israel.
Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah and Nasser Shiyoukhi in Hebron contributed reporting.