Heavy snow was falling and the thick flakes were piling up on the ground to create a beautiful white layer of ice. We arrived in Hebron on Tuesday morning to a cold of -1 degree Celsius, and were looking for house number 36 on Al-Shuhada Street. The building has two stores on street level and two more residential floors above. Adjacent to it is another building that belongs to the same Palestinian family.
On Thursday, January 21, in a well-planned operation, 17 Jewish families, accompanied by dozens of settlers and supporters from all across the country, arrived at 36 Al-Shuhada Street and moved in with bells on. They didn't need to break in the doors, as the settlers had the keys. They received them, they say, after having bought the house, obtained all of the original paperwork and signed all of the required documents.
Standing on the middle of the snow-covered street, just outside the house, the story of how it was purchased sounds like a thriller whose ending has yet to be written. The narrator is Shlomo Levinger, 42, the son of Moshe Levinger, a leader of the Jewish settlement in Hebron who passed away last year. Shlomo is the principal of a primary school in Kiryat Arba and a member of an NGO called "Enlarge the Place of Thy Tent" (Isaiah 54:2), which deals with the "liberation" of homes in Hebron, the city of the ancestors. What this in effect means is buying real estate from Arabs. This isn't the first real estate deal he's been involved in. Before that were the Machpelah house, located next to the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Beit HaShalom, also known as Beit HaMeriva, depending on your political inclination.
And yet, it feels like this deal is more nerve-wracking than all the others. The drama behind the scenes is intense, as the seller is currently staying with some of his family members in a safe house in central Israel, protected by the NGO. Meanwhile his son and some of his brothers are being held by the Palestinian Authority under the threat that if he, the seller, doesn't turn himself in, "they will never see the light of day again."
This deal began about five years ago, when representatives of the NGO came to test the waters with the property owner. From his home in Tel Rumeida, Levinger says that in addition to sending out feelers to some property owners, the NGO is also approached by a lot of Hebron residents who want to sell their homes to Jews.
"Most of the cases immediately fall by the wayside due to problems with the property's registration or because the person who approaches the NGO is not authorized to sell the property on his own and does not have permission from the other property owners. We only buy when there is a 100 percent certainty that the deal could go through," he says.
According to Levinger, his property is on plots 208-215, some 50 meters away from the Cave of the Patriarchs, "and we were looking for property around the cave, so this suited us."
Levinger stresses that the purchase of the homes is done only with donation money from private entities and individuals, most of whom are Israeli. Attorney Doron Nir-Zvi, who specializes in buying land and homes from Palestinians in the territories, works with the NGO. The NGO is also aided by realtors, big wigs, and Palestinian straw men whose job is to push the deal forward and make sure all of the relevant documents on the Palestinian side are obtained.
"The seller," Levinger says, "put his property on the market and there were no buyers. We're talking about two houses, six large apartments and 11 smaller units that all face a courtyard, that have been standing empty for several years. A representative on our behalf, not Jewish, tested the waters with him to see whether he'd be willing to sell to Jews. The representative of course told the settler that he will get a lot more than the market price."
How much above the market price are you willing to pay?
"Between 30 and 50 percent more. The Arabs know that deals with us are worthwhile, with a lot more money. We see it as a mitzva to liberate the land, and mitzvas cost money. And the money is not just for the property itself. Add to that tens of thousands of shekels we spend on obtaining the documents. Every document has a value, for every action we pay commission to the middlemen. If the seller provides documents from the PA showing that he is the sole heir or that he has been legally authorized by the other heirs to sell, a document that confirms there are no other ownership claims for the property - each document like that costs us money. They don't do anything for free. Documents that in any other real estate deal in Israel the seller must present and it's his responsibility to obtain them, here we pay for every such action. And we make sure to document every payment, to record and film."
He turns on his laptop and shows us a video in which the property owner is seen arriving at a meeting with a representative of the NGO. The place: The gas station at the entrance to Kiryat Arba. The seller comes in driving a Volkswagen Golf. He exits the car and is approached by the NGO representative. The representative gives him an envelope with money, and the seller provides him with documents in return. They each check what they just received - the seller checks the money, the representative checks the documents. All of this is done in broad daylight, outside, at the parking lot behind the gas station.
He shows us another video, this time from the Machpelah house deal. The video shows two adult men counting piles of cash - NIS 60,000. The money is skillfully passed from one hand to another. Some of it is also shoved into their pockets, payment on the side. One of the "stars" of the video is Muhammad Abu Shahala, a colonel in the Palestinian police. Abu Shahala, Levinger says, was the "strawperson" for the Jewish buyers in that deal.
"He needed money and we wanted to buy the house. From feelers we put out we realized there was no way the property owner was willing to sell to Jews, so we sent an Arab to him, a senior officer in the Palestinian police. Abu Shahala received hundreds of thousands of shekels as commission for this deal. A pile of money. We begged him, 'You got a lot of money, take your family and leave, go to Jordan, to Europe - as long as you don't stay here.'
"But he wanted to look like Abu Ali, someone who is not afraid. Instead of running he took the money and built himself an edifice not far from the Muqata'a in Ramallah. Built a castle. Went all out. So they instantly suspected him. He was just a retired Palestinian police officer, where did he get all that money? They arrested him and held him for 28 days, and he didn't confess. They let him go and instead of running he kept building. They arrested him again, along with other middlemen who worked with us. And in a situation like that, it's about who makes the first move. If the PA realizes he sold the house to Jews, they'd immediately have a Palestinian family move in, and then even if the house belongs to us, the military will never evict a Palestinian family from that house. So we had to move in earlier than planned. The military does evict us, but at least then it guards the house until the matter is cleared and makes sure the Arabs don't move in.
"In short, we put a Palestinian lawyer there, paid by us, without him knowing he was paid by us. The lawyer was working with our people on the inside. And there was a code word that if he said it, it meant Abu Shahala confessed in the interrogation that he was merely a strawperson working for Jews. At 1:30, we received a message that he confessed, and less than eight hours later we moved in with 15 families. We were evicted in the end, but the sale is under examination to this very day and the army is guarding the property so no Arab can move in."
Abu Shahala was sentenced to death, but PA leader Abbas has yet to sign off on carrying out the sentence.
The "Beit Rachel" deal entailed dozens of meetings. Levinger says that from the get go it was made clear to the property owner that he was selling to Jews. Some of the middlemen and those responsible for carrying out the deal were Palestinians. Some were Israeli Arabs, and some were Jews who speak fluent Arabic. "These are people behind the scenes that haven't been exposed. For all intents and purposes I'm the one standing at the display window, but behind me in the shop there are a lot of people who want to remain anonymous."
While the deal was ongoing, representatives of the NGO entered the house in secret. "We see the place is derelict. A dump that requires massive renovation and repair. We agreed with the seller that he'll renovate. This is a wealthy man who owns businesses and properties in the city. He knew he would have to leave Hebron when the deal is completed, so we gave him time to get his affairs in order, to sell off his properties. The renovation allowed him to take his time."
The neighbors, meanwhile, were none-the-wiser. Rassan Abu Khdeir, 31, who owns a grocery store opposite the houses, said that they, the neighbors, were unaware of any sale made to Jewish settlers. "The property owner was renovating the building because he wanted to make it a hotel. That's what he said to anyone who asked him why he was renovating."
Levinger says this was the agreed upon cover story with the seller. "We paid for the renovation and told him that if people asked him what he was doing, to say he was turning the house to a hotel."
During the renovations, gossip started spreading around the neighborhood. There were those who didn't believe the hotel story. The seller was arrested by the Palestinian police and Levinger says they were sure that would be the end of the deal.
"It was about a year ago. He didn't confess to anything. He was interrogated for a week, maybe a little longer, but he was eventually released. He kept renovating as his cover story, and got ready to leave. We knew that the longer this thing was taking, the bigger was the chance of running into trouble. And then the Uvda investigative report aired. It was about three weeks ago. This report was followed up in the Palestinian media. Ezra Nawi and his actions were being reported everywhere (Nawi was filmed bragging that he passed on names of Palestinian land brokers willing to sell to Jews to the Palestinian security forces - ed.). The seller got nervous. He saw a story like that and probably thought 'who knows if the Jews working with me won't turn me in, trick me?' After all, he had already been arrested once. The PA constantly arrests anyone they have even a shadow of suspicion about that he's selling or planning to sell to Jews. And they don't let anyone off easy."
Phone call to Ya'alon
At this point, government ministers in Jerusalem already knew the settlers in Hebron were working on a new real estate deal. The head of the Kiryat Arba council and Likud member Malachi Levinger, Shlomo's brother, was the one in charge of dealing with the politicians.
"I give them general updates," he says. "I don't go into specific details with them, as I myself don't know everything. This is a compartmentalized business. But I do know enough to tell them that we're working on a deal that is about to take shape very soon."
Who did you update?
"All of the Likud and Bayit Yehudi ministers."
Including Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon?
"Obviously. Ya'alon knows we're constantly operating in Hebron to purchase houses and liberate the land. All members of the government know we have the desire and intention to create a contiguity of settlement around the Cave of the Patriarchs, and from the cave all the way to Kiryat Arba. And they're all urging us on and encouraging us, all of the ministers with no exception.
"Now this entire thing has already reached a boiling point," Shlomo Levinger continues. "The deal has been completed, we have the keys, we filed a request to approve the deal with the Civil Administration, but we're worried the seller flees abroad or gets arrested. In either eventuality the PA can jump ahead of us and move an Arab family in. A week ago we met with him in Kiryat Arba. He seemed nervous, stressed, said, 'this is it, I want to leave for Europe.' He has older children who live in Europe and he wants to join them with his wife and the rest of his children from Hebron. One of our people went to organize his family's departure from Hebron. He himself has been sent to a safe house in central Israel.”
You rented a house for him?
"He's with Jews who are willing to keep him safe in their homes. There's someone on our behalf that's with him to protect him. But wait, his 17-year-old son would not leave Hebron claiming he was safe. We tell him, 'Your father is in hiding, you're all in danger.' We explained to him why that is, told him about the sale. But the guy will just not leave. He's sure everything will be okay. Meanwhile, we're getting ready to move in. We had 17 families ready and supporters from all over the country. Local Likud leaders from Rosh HaAyin, Hod Hasharon and Raanana also came. On Thursday afternoon we got there with the keys and moved in."
And the seller?
"His wife and some of his children are with him at the safe house. He's not a prisoner there, but he's afraid to leave. At least he won't come near here. A short while after we moved in, his son and brothers were arrested in Hebron. He's trying to pull some strings from here, perhaps he could pay bribe for their release. He's between a rock and a hard place, in quite the dilemma. One of our people who looked into this was made to understand from officials in the PA that his son and brothers won't get to see the light of day if he doesn't turn himself in."
The two houses on 36 Al-Shuhada Street are now called "Beit Rachel" and "Beit Leah." Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon ordered to evict the settlers the day after they moved in, claiming he did not approve the deal, as is required by law. The doors are locked, and across the street are two soldiers standing guard, making sure no one enters until the deal's legitimacy is checked.
The drama of the seller, who is hiding in Israel and worrying about his son that is held by the PA, continues. We asked to talk to the seller, or at least meet with him in the safe house, but the NGO's representatives would not allow it.