After more than two decades of planning, bureaucratic hurdles and court petitions filed by opponents, the Jewish Community of Hebron is on the cusp of laying the foundations for 31 new housing units in the city’s historic Hezekiah Quarter.
The project also includes plans for several kindergartens, public parks and a dormitory.
The Civil Administration’s Higher Planning Council announced preliminary approval for the project back in 2017, with the Israeli Cabinet giving final approval the following year. The construction represents the first major Jewish construction in the H2 section of Hebron in 23 years.
The Hebron Protocol of 1997 signed by Israel and the PLO divided the city into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, under Israeli military administration. The protocol has never been ratified by either of the contracting parties.
Uri Karzen, director general of the Jewish community in Hebron, home to over 100 families, told JNS that the ground has been cleared. The Civil Administration’s team of archeologists under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority has completed its mandatory inspections, and building should commence in the next few months, he said.
Karzen, along with the other leaders of the community, doesn’t consider the new apartments as simply housing units, but views them as a symbol of a nearly 200-year-old historic effort to reclaim the area, as it changed hands under various governments but is now back in the hands of its Jewish owners.
“The significance of this project is the fact that we are redeeming Jewish land in Hebron,” he said. “It’s the essence of the Jewish people returning to Israel.”
He explained that “this land switched hands many times over the past 150 years—from Turkish control to the British, then the Jordanians, and finally, Israel. It’s gone through so much. But finally, Israel is able to move forward and develop the area and strengthen our presence in the holy city of Hebron.”
The history of the Hezekiah Quarter, also known as Nahalat Chabad, is well documented. In 1879, Haim Yisrael Romano, a wealthy Turkish Jewish merchant from Constantinople, purchased land in Hebron and built a large house. In addition to being the family’s home, Beit Romano, as it is known, served as a guesthouse and later on housed the town’s “Istanbul Synagogue.”
Beit Romano and the surrounding area symbolized the establishment of Jewish centers outside of the Avraham Avinu “ghetto” near the Cave of the Patriarchs.
In 1901, Rabbi Chaim Hezekiah Medini (1834-1904) moved to Hebron and opened a yeshiva in Beit Romano. It was here that he completed his nine-volume Talmudic encyclopedia the “Sde Hemed” and served as chief Sephardic rabbi of the city. The neighborhood was dubbed the Hezekiah Quarter due to the rabbi’s significant impact on Jewish life in the community.
About a decade later, Beit Romano and the surrounding neighborhoods were purchased by the Chabad movement, which set up a yeshiva there. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire, which was at war with Russia as part of World War I, seized the property, expelling the yeshiva students and turning the building into a police station and courthouse. When the British defeated the Turks in 1917, they converted Beit Romano into a police headquarters. In 1948, the Jordanians captured Hebron and the building was used as a school.
Israel recaptured the city in the 1967 Six-Day War but the building and neighborhood remained in Arab hands until a 1982 terrorist attack near the building, in which one Israeli was wounded.
The response of the government was to return the building and adjacent areas to Jewish hands. Today the building houses the Shavei Hebron Yeshiva, a flagship educational institution of Torah Zionism.
Fast forward to 2018, and even with Cabinet approval of the housing project it took more than four years to get the ball officially rolling due to petitions filed against the project by the P.A.-run Hebron Municipality and the Peace Now organization.
Citing technicalities such as issues with the height of the proposed construction, the groups filed a grievance with Israel’s Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice. However, in 2022, the petitions were rejected, with the court saying it would not overrule a project approved by the Civil Administration, which has the authority to approve building projects in Judea and Samaria.
The arc of history
Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesperson for the Jewish Community of Hebron, told JNS, “The amazing tenacity of the Jewish people in an arc of history which spans over 200 years to redeem a piece of property in Hebron shows—as opposed to what our enemies claim—our deep, unabated connection to the city of our forefathers and mothers.
“Our enemies try to frame our presence in Hebron as an occupation and ‘white colonialization.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. The Jewish connection to Hebron is over 3,800 years old. The Hezekiah Quarter will house Jewish families who will grow and thrive in the city until such a time as Jewish rights in Hebron will be enshrined once again,” he said.
“We have at times been an ethnic majority in the city and other times like today an ethnic minority but our indigenous, historic and spiritual connection cannot be denied,” Fleisher said.
Noam Arnon, the longtime Hebrew-language spokesperson for the Jewish community, whose doctoral thesis from Bar-Ilan University is titled “The Tomb of the Patriarchs: From Origins to Late Antiquity,” told JNS he was issuing a call for Jewish families to come and live in one of the new housing units in the project, on the land which was liberated.
“It is not every day that one is given the opportunity to continue a 4,000-year-old historical enterprise,” he said.
“It’s not every day that a person has the opportunity to participate in a unique and innovative opportunity: building a Jewish home in Hebron, the city of our ancestors, where the builders are the buyers and the owners, where you can own a home and private property that you can pass down to your children and grandchildren, just a few minutes away from the Cave of the Patriarchs, the estate of our fathers and mothers, the oldest Jewish piece of property in the world. Don’t miss this opportunity!” Arnon said.