How Ofra did not keep the Sabbath, and neither did the Sabbath keep it

About a month after the evacuation of Amona, the government was ordered to evacuate nine houses built illegally on private Palestinian land in the settlement of Ofra. As the evacuation date approaches, Ofra’s settlers are becoming more vocal in their objections. Therefore, as a service to the public, we decided to provide a reminder of the facts in this case.

Ofra is the crème de la crème of the settlement movement. Its residents love to reminisce over how when it was first built in the 1970s, then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres came to plant a tree there. They are much less likely to mention the fact that most of Ofra is built on private Palestinian land, which is an undisputed fact.

The current residents of Ofra are no more zealous in protecting the rights of their Palestinian neighbors than its founders. In 2008, the residents of the Palestinian village of Ein Yabroud noticed new construction on their land in Ofra. Knowing that unless they take rapid legal action, this would soon be another case of de facto annexation. So the owners demanded that the authorities, using the services of Yesh Din, put an end to the illegal construction. The Civil Administration has already looked into the status of the land, and in 2007, even before the Palestinians noticed the construction, had issued stop-work orders, followed by demolition orders for the nine buildings. But then, as usual, refrained from enforcing those orders.

After our attempts to convince the authorities to do their legal duty and demolish the illegal buildings failed, the owners petitioned the High Court of Justice, together with the human rights NGOs Yesh Din and B’Tselem, demanding the buildings be demolished.

The devil is in the details, and it’s important to follow the timeline. The petition was filed on June 4th 2008; on that day, Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy (yes, the one from the Levy Report) issued a decision ordering the government to submit its reply within 10 days. On June 19th, the government announced that an order prohibiting any use of the buildings or populating them is indeed in order, and Justice Levy issued such an order on that very day, prohibiting also the connecting of the buildings to water, sewage and electricity.

A month later, we were forced to ask the court to clarify its order; the reason was an exceptionally cynical behavior by the government, which claimed that because Levy order was directed at the government, it did not know whether it was also enforceable vis-à-vis Israeli civilians who have invaded the buildings between the time of the petition and the issuing of the order.

How could it be that settlers moved into the houses despite the petition? It turns out that stealing land is more important than the Sabbath. As everyone knows, observant Jews are prohibited from performing various forms of labor during the Sabbath, unless one’s life is in danger. Ofra’s rabbi, Avi Gisser, issued a religious ruling (Hebrew) that allows for working on the houses seven days a week, so that they may be populated before the High Court’s ruling – out of the belief that were the houses to be populated, the government would find it hard to order their evacuation. Notice the date of Rabbi Gisser’s ruling: June 12th 2008, eight days after the petition was filed and a week before the government issued its response.

Gisser’s eye rolling was answered by the government’s eye rolling: then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that because the houses were populated, he did not intend to demolish them. In other words, he declared the unclean kosher. In a note to the High Court served in his name, Barak explained that the court order prohibited settlers from entering the houses as well as connecting the homes to infrastructure, but did not order the evacuation of the invaders and cutting them off from water and electricity in contravention of the court order. And so we got a legal trick combined with a spurious halachaic schtick to disrupt the rule of law.

The High Court justices wrote some harsh words in response: “It would appear that actions were taken, whose purpose was to change the facts on the ground and foil the request for an interim order.” The justices demanded that the government explain (Hebrew) why it would not enforce the demolition orders. That was on March 24th 2009, almost a year after the petition was filed, and some three years after illegal construction began. The government, by the way, claimed in court that the police was investigating in order to find out who populated the houses, and at whose connivance. The police dragged its feet on this investigation before quietly closing it.

That was in 2009. And here we are in 2017. How did we get here? Well, the government tried several defenses. It admitted that the houses were built on private Palestinian land, but claimed that the petitioners are not the owners. It claimed that there is a very serious problem here: “The issues relating to the nine buildings discussed in the petition are true for many, many houses in Ofra.” Yet instead of seeing its duty as enforcing the law, it decided declare the unclean kosher, given so many such permissions in the past.

And in the meantime time dragged on, and on, and on. In February 2015, the court rejected all the claims of the government and the settlers. It ruled that the dirty tricks of swift construction on the Sabbath and the quick populating of the houses in order to bypass the law were used to argue in favor of demolition. Being merciful and mild, the court gave the government two years (Hebrew) to demolish the structures.

These two years were supposed to expire on February 8th, 2017. In her verdict, Chief Justice Miryam Naor wrote that “at the end of this period, the demolition orders are to be enforced without any more attempts to postpone the end, as is unfortunately common in such cases.”