In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down : Parallels In a case that lasted years, Israel's highest court ordered removal of a synagogue built on Palestinian land. But the case was complicated by the government's $1.3 million payout to Jewish settlers.
NPR logo

In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/457203807/457203808" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down

In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down

In The West Bank, A Synagogue Comes Down

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/457203807/457203808" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The Ayalet HaShahar synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev was built in the late 1990s. After years of legal battles, Israel's highest court ruled the synagogue, built on privately owned Palestinian land, had to be taken down. A new, temporary synagogue went up overnight, just a block away. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Emily Harris/NPR

The Ayalet HaShahar synagogue in the West Bank settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev was built in the late 1990s. After years of legal battles, Israel's highest court ruled the synagogue, built on privately owned Palestinian land, had to be taken down. A new, temporary synagogue went up overnight, just a block away.

Emily Harris/NPR

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.

Palestinian Rabah Abdellatif fought in court against the synagogue on his land for years. He died a year ago, but his sons pressed on with the battle. They welcomed the court's decisions but say the government payout to settlers will encourage them to build again on Palestinian land. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Emily Harris/NPR

Palestinian Rabah Abdellatif fought in court against the synagogue on his land for years. He died a year ago, but his sons pressed on with the battle. They welcomed the court's decisions but say the government payout to settlers will encourage them to build again on Palestinian land.

Emily Harris/NPR

"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.

A Palestinian farmer from the nearby village of Jib got an Israeli permit to cross a military checkpoint and prepare his land next to the settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev for sowing wheat. The disputed synagogue is being dismantled in the background as he works. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Emily Harris/NPR

A Palestinian farmer from the nearby village of Jib got an Israeli permit to cross a military checkpoint and prepare his land next to the settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev for sowing wheat. The disputed synagogue is being dismantled in the background as he works.

Emily Harris/NPR

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.

A new synagogue went up almost overnight as the older one was being taken down. They are only a block apart, but the new one is on land that is not part of this lawsuit. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Emily Harris/NPR

A new synagogue went up almost overnight as the older one was being taken down. They are only a block apart, but the new one is on land that is not part of this lawsuit.

Emily Harris/NPR

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.

Jewish activists put up posters as part of a campaign to save the synagogue. The synagogue came down, but the government agreed to pay the settlers $1.3 million. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Emily Harris/NPR

Jewish activists put up posters as part of a campaign to save the synagogue. The synagogue came down, but the government agreed to pay the settlers $1.3 million.

Emily Harris/NPR

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.