Morris Abraham had never owned land in the West Bank before he was told, on a trip to Hebron five years ago, that Arabs in the area were eager to sell property to Jews.
Initially, the New York businessman demurred. Real estate isn’t his business, he recalls thinking. Women’s shoes are.
But almost immediately he changed in mind, setting in motion a process that culminated two weeks ago with the eviction of Jewish settlers from the building he purchased, known as Beit Hashalom, or House of Peace.
The evacuation itself set off a paroxysm of Jewish violence that drew broad condemnation from American Jewish groups and prompted the Israeli prime minister to describe it as a “pogrom.” But to defenders of the Jewish settlers — Abraham among them — the violence was perpetrated by a handful of kids whose view of the world is informed by their passion and single-mindedness.
“Children, to them right and wrong is a clear path,” Abraham told JTA in an interview last week. “They see injustice done, they’re going to break the law. It doesn’t mean it’s right. But children are impressionable. They see the leaders of Israel, like an Olmert who breaks the law constantly. He may be going to jail because of all his lawbreaking. As adults we know. Adults make mistakes. Adults do right. Adults do wrong. It’s part of life. But children don’t know that.”
Asked about the so-called “price tag” strategy, whereby some Jewish settlers have vowed to spread mayhem as a price for further evacuations by Israeli authorities, Abraham said only a tiny minority was threatening violence.
“I don’t agree with the strategy,” he said. “I don’t agree, though, that you just walk out. I agree that there should be some sort of peaceful resistance.”
A 40-year-old importer of women’s shoes, Abraham is a member of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn. He recounted the Hebron building’s purchase in a thick Brooklyn accent at his 11th-floor Manhattan office, surrounded by samples of his product arrayed on shelves against a mirrored backdrop.
Wearing a soft black yarmulke, the father of five recalled how he had paid $1 million for the building and then spent three years making sure the deal was airtight before letting Jewish families move in. Palestinian Arabs face the possibility of execution as retribution for selling land to Jews, and Abraham says he knew the moment the house was occupied the seller would tell police there had been no deal.
“We made sure that our i’s were dotted, and our t’s were crossed, and everything was backed up on video tape and cassette tape,” Abraham said. “We waited three years, with many, many, many lawyers, going over the documents, and going over the documents, and going over the documents.”
The shoe wholesaler declined to identify the middlemen who arranged the deal.
When some 100 people took up residence in the house in the spring of 2007, a Jerusalem court began sorting out the question of its sale. So the situation remained until last month, when Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that authorities could evacuate the premises until the ownership question had been settled. On Dec. 4, Israeli forces forcibly removed about 200 settlers from the house.
While Abraham acknowledges being motivated party by the Jews’ strong biblical ties to Hebron — he notes that the the Torah relates only three instances where Jews purchased property in Israel, among them the patriarch Abraham’s acquisition of land in Hebron — he told JTA his interest in Beit Hashalom was primarily financial. He had looked at other properties in Hebron, but they were small and unattractive. Beit Hashalom is large and modern, he says, with room for 30 apartments, a small social hall on the ground level and even the potential to add another floor of residential units.
It also sits on a strategic position on a main road, its height providing a commanding view of the surrounding area. Israeli soldiers have set up a post on the roof and installed expensive surveillance equipment there, he said.
“We’re huge; we overpower the entire area,” Abraham said. “The soldiers in the area — they love it. It’s great.”
In an interview posted on the video-sharing Web site YouTube, Abraham offered a slightly more nationalistic account of his intentions. Asked if he still would have gone forward with the purchase had he known that such controversy would ensue, Abraham replied, “I would have still gone ahead with this because I believe that us as Jews have the right to occupy all of Israel, everywhere in Israel. It is our land. And sometimes we have to fight for what’s ours.”
Abraham closed his remarks by encouraging others to “fund these types of projects.”
The controversy over Beit Hashalom raises thorny questions about private purchases of land that may conflict with larger Israeli objectives concerning disputed territories. The Jewish presence in heavily Arab areas of the West Bank is widely viewed as an obstacle to the establishment of a Palestinian state — and hence an eventual agreement on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But in Abraham’s view, his purchase is unrelated to the Hebron’s political future and is no different from Arabs who purchase land in Israel or Jews who buy property in Arab countries.
“If they’re talking about giving up this part of the land, what is their issue if somebody buys land?” Abraham said. “So it’s either going to be Israel and you buy in Israel, or it becomes Palestine and we bought land in Palestine. I don’t understand what the issue is of where you bought the land. People are entitled to buy property wherever they want, whether they’re Arab or European or Chinese. ”
With the evacuation complete, the case now reverts to a lower court, which must determine whether Abraham’s purchase was lawful. The case, his lawyers tell him, could drag on for as long as two years and cause considerable financial strain. But Abraham seems resigned to that possibility.
“I’ll have to sell a lot of shoes,” Abraham said. “What am I going to tell you?”