An Israeli court on Tuesday ruled that Jewish settlers were the lawful owners of a long-disputed building in the heart of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
The Supreme Court ruling brings an end to a legal dispute lasting nearly seven years, after the Palestinian Rajabi family said its four-storey building had been taken over by Israeli settlers.
Israeli settlements on occupied land the Palestinians want for their future state have been a major source of tensions in US-brokered peace talks relaunched last year.
The building is near a contested holy site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs in a tightly-controlled Israeli enclave where many streets are off-limits to Palestinian cars.
The settlers were evacuated in 2008, and the court verdict said they would not be allowed to move back in until they get defence ministry approval.
The structure was sold in 2004 by its Palestinian owners to settlers through a “non-Jewish straw man”, according to court documents.
When settlers moved into the structure in 2007 the Palestinians charged they had been tricked and said the purchase was invalid, lodging complaints with the police and petitioning the court.
Palestinians view the selling of property in occupied territory to Jewish settlers as a betrayal of their national cause, so such purchases are nearly always conducted in secret or through middlemen, increasing the potential for disputes.
The case was debated in the Jerusalem district court, which in 2012 ruled in favour of the Jewish organisation behind the purchase.
Neria Arnon, a spokeswoman for the Hebron settlers, told AFP the decision proved the purchase was legitimate and legal.
“We’re happy the court confirmed this, and are waiting for the final approval of the defence minister, to do what is necessary to enable us to settle the building,” she said.
The head of the left-wing Meretz party, Zehava Galon, called on Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon to “refrain from letting the settlers in,” due to the “severe security and diplomatic ramifications of such a move.”
“One must keep in mind there are 500 (extremist) Israelis in Hebron making the life of 145,000 Palestinians miserable, backed up by the army and police,” she said in a statement.
A spokesman for Yaalon said he was “learning the topic.”
The flashpoint city of Hebron, home to nearly 200,000 Palestinians, also comprises some 80 settler homes in the centre of town housing about 700 Jews who live under Israeli army protection.