In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down | KUOW News and Information

In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down

Nov 24, 2015
Originally published on November 30, 2015 11:53 am

In a West Bank settlement, Israelis are taking down a synagogue. The country's highest court ordered its removal because it was built without a permit on property owned by Palestinians.

It's a rare move, and the story of how this came to be reveals a heated debate around judicial activism, government money, and settlers' political power.

Two weeks ago, the Ayalet HaShahar synagogue in the Giv'at Ze'ev settlement was packed with young Israeli men.

They milled around, eating lunch in the courtyard entrance, or studying Scripture in the wooden pews of the sanctuary. When a prominent rabbi stopped by, some chanted and danced as an Israeli television crew recorded the visit.

These young men had come from around Israel and settlements in the West Bank in a bid to prevent the removal of the synagogue as ordered by Israel's highest court.

Amichai Malik, a 20-year-old from a nearby settlement, said "bad" court rulings should be fought.

"The fact that the guy has a hat of judge, doesn't mean anything," he said. "In this case, they're just doing an evil thing. And the house that should be destroyed is the court."

This synagogue, a sturdy building with cut-glass chandeliers in the foyer and sanctuary, was constructed in 1998, on what was then the outskirts of Giv'at Ze'ev, a settlement just east of Jerusalem that had started 15 years earlier. By 1999, a Palestinian from the nearby village of Jib had won a court ruling to take it down.

Palestinian Rabah Abdellatif claimed the Jewish house of worship was built on his family's farmland, although it had lain fallow for a while. The Israeli court ordered the synagogue removed based not on his claim but on grounds that the Jewish builders had not obtained proper Israeli construction permits.

This case went in and out of court. Abdellatif died last year, but his sons pressed on to win control of the property. Synagogue backers say they paid for the land, but they couldn't substantiate that to satisfy the court.

Two years ago, the Israeli government agreed to take the synagogue down. Appeals delayed the destruction until a final court order to remove it no later than Nov. 17.

So the young men hanging out there two weeks ago were expecting Israeli security forces to arrive with orders to remove them.

They were ready. Tires were stacked near the entrance and along outer walls — some stuffed with paper to ignite quickly. Barbed wire stretched across the building's flat roof.

Matanel Giladi, 23, from the coastal town of Netanya, said the court order crossed a red line.

"Even if in Europe or the U.S.A. [the government is] coming to destroy a synagogue this is a red line, but in Israel this does not make sense. This is something you need to stand for and say, 'No. Enough is enough,' " he said.

By last week, the synagogue was empty and surrounded by a 6-foot metal fence. Outside, a police officer sat on duty. A few workers on the roof took the building apart, while simultaneously, one block away, other workers put up a new, temporary synagogue.

Twenty-four hours after they started, the temporary synagogue was ready for prayers amid the construction.

How did this all finally get resolved without a major confrontation?

The government was looking for a way out. Israeli officials didn't want clashes between settlers and Israeli forces. They also expressed concern that angry settlers might take revenge on Palestinians.

So after negotiations that included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government offered the settlers the equivalent of $1.3 million. Elana Dror, a member of the Giv'at Ze'ev municipal council, was relieved.

"I was sure it was going to end in violence," she said, outside the new synagogue, which she supports but does not attend. "And that's why Bibi Netanyahu stepped in, because he realized if he wouldn't step in, God forbid there would have been bloodshed or something else."

Still, settlers are angry at the court. Wealthy Israeli backers of the synagogue say since the judges ordered a Jewish prayer site removed, they plan to fund lawsuits challenging illegally built mosques.

Law professor Barak Medina of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says Israel's high court has come under increased pressure as the country has shifted right politically.

"We see in recent years this growing criticism of politicians from the right against the court," he says. "Which of course has an adverse affect on public confidence in court. But I must say it is still only rhetoric."

He notes that Israel's parliament has not, despite threats of some politicians, revoked the high court's right to choose to review any law or government policy, or hear any claim, giving it broader rights to intervene than the U.S. Supreme Court has, for example.

But it's not just rhetoric, says Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for Yesh Din, the Israeli legal organization that represents the Abdellatif family.

Grossman says the Israeli government undermined the country's highest court by taking years and paying a large sum to fulfill the court's removal order. In the end, he says, the family got what it asked for. But the way it happened is "very dangerous for democracy," he said.

Members of the Abdellatif family, who have American citizenship, agree. Mohammad Abdellatif says the Israeli high court brought his family some justice. But he worries the government payment to the settlers could encourage others to build on property owned by Palestinians.

"They have no justice for giving them this money. For what?" Abdellatif asks. "To go to other areas and fight Palestinians?"

He and most of his siblings live in Jib, the same West Bank village where their father was born. They hope to raise olives or grapes on their land once the synagogue is completely gone. To tend to crops, they need permits from the Israeli military to cross a soldier-staffed checkpoint — the only opening in the barrier, topped with barbed wire, that separates Giv'at Ze'ev and other nearby settlements from Palestinian villages in the area.

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In a West Bank settlement, Israelis are tearing down a synagogue under court order. Israel's High Court ruled it was built without a permit on property owned by Palestinians. The case dragged on for years, and it was ultimately resolved with a government payout, raising doubts about the High Court's authority. NPR's Emily Harris tells the story.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, the Ayelet Hashahar synagogue in the Givat Ze'ev settlement was packed with young Israeli men. They milled around, eating lunch or studying Scripture. Some chanted and danced as TV cameras recorded a prominent rabbi stopping by for a visit. The young men were prepared to confront Israeli security forces after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the synagogue to be removed from the private Palestinian land where it was built. Tires were stuffed with paper to ignite quickly. Barbed wire was rolled out on the roof. Amichai Malik, a 20-year-old from a nearby settlement, said bad court rulings should be fought.

AMICHAI MALIK: The fact of the guy have - had a judge doesn't mean anything. And in this case, they're just doing evil things. And the house that should be destroyed is the court.

HARRIS: Fast forward one week. The synagogue is empty and surrounded by a six-foot metal fence. Outside, a police officer sits on duty. A few workers on the roof are taking this building apart at the same time as, one block away, other workers are putting up a new temporary synagogue, already complete enough for prayers amid the construction. Here's what happened. Israeli officials did not want clashes between settlers and Israeli forces. They also expressed concern that angry settlers might take revenge on Palestinians. So the government, led by the Prime Minister, offered the settlers $1.3 million to entice rather than force them out. Elana Dror, a settlement official, was relieved.

ELANA DROR: I was sure it was going to end in violence. And that's why Bibi Netanyahu stepped in - because he realized that if he wouldn't step in, God forbid, there would have been bloodshed or something else.

HARRIS: Still, settlers are angry at the court. Wealthy Israeli backers of the synagogue say, since judges ordered a Jewish prayer site removed, they will fund lawsuits challenging illegally-built mosques. Law professor Barak Medina of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says Israel's High Court has come under increased pressure as the country has shifted right politically.

BARAK MEDINA: We see in recent years this growing criticism of politicians from the right against the court which, of course, has an adverse effect on public confidence in the court. But I must say that it is still only rhetoric.

HARRIS: But it's not just rhetoric, says the Israeli legal organization that represented the Palestinians who own the land where the synagogue was built. Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the organization Yesh Din, says the government undermined the court by taking years and paying a million dollars to fulfill the court's removal order.

GILAD GROSSMAN: Bottom line - we got what we asked for. The way it happened is very dangerous for democracy.

HARRIS: The Palestinian owners, who have American citizenship, agree. Mohammad Abdellatif says the Israeli High Court brought his family some justice. But he worries the government payment to these settlers could encourage others to build on property owned by Palestinians.

MOHAMMAD ABDELLATIF: They have no justice for giving them this money - for what? If you make like this, every time anyone will come to the other area and told the government, give us some money.

HARRIS: He and his siblings hope to raise olives or grapes on their land once the synagogue is completely gone. If they run into more hurdles, they say, they won't hesitate to return to court. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.