The Jewish Community of Hebron this week celebrated the news that construction has begun in the historic Hezekiah (Hizkiyahu) quarter in the ancient city.
The new neighborhood will be called “Hezekiah Quarter – Nachalat Chabad” and is being built on Jewish-owned property that belonged to the original Hebron Jewish community.
When the Jews were driven from the city in the war of 1948, the Jordanian government used the property as a bus station and a school, determining it to be “abandoned property” under a protected tenancy agreement. That status was continued following the 1967 Six Day War, when the area was returned to Israeli jurisdiction, and local Arabs were allowed to continue leasing the property.
It was not until the 1980s, when the Israel Defense Forces seized the property for security reasons, albeit on the recognition of its Jewish-owned status, that the possibility of Jewish return to the land arose.
Unlike other areas of Israel, Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria must also obtain military approval for any building or renovation projects. Approval was secured from the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration in 2018 for construction of 31 apartments and two kindergarten buildings on Shuhada Street.
It’s the first time in 20 years that Hebron has seen new construction for Jews.
“Building in the City of the Patriarchs by the Israeli government is a Zionist, just, necessary and blessed step,” the Jewish Community of Hebron said in a release in 2018.
“Upon receiving the building permit for the Hezekiah Quarter, we congratulate and thank the Prime Minister and all the ministers, Knesset members and public figures who worked with determination and dedication together with us to advance the building permit.”
The Hebron Municipality on the Palestinian Authority-controlled side of the city is headed Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneinah, a convicted terrorist who participated in a 1980 attack that left six people dead and a dozen others with injuries. Sneinah was subsequently released in a prisoner swap deal and then rose to power through the ranks of the Palestinian Authority.
The Hezekiah neighborhood is located in the historic Jewish Quarter of the city, just outside what was once referred to as the “Jewish ghetto” by literature of 100 years ago. The main existing structure is Beit Romano, a large building which today houses the Shavei Hevron yeshiva, a flagship institution of religious Zionism and home to several hundred students from around the country.
The history of Beit Romano dates back to 1876 when Hayyim Yisrael Romano built a spacious residential building outside the Jewish Quarter, complete with a synagogue and study hall.
In this building, Rabbi Chaim Hizkiyahu Medini, who served as the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the city, completed his monumental Talmudic encyclopedia ‘Sde Hemed’, and studied and taught Torah between the years 1901-1905. Rabbi Medini was laid to rest in the ancient Hebron cemetery.
The Turks used the building as a police station prior to World War I, after which (1917) it was converted by the British to their own police headquarters upon their defeat of the Ottomans and seizure of the land of Israel.
In 1912, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidic movement, purchased the building along with the surrounding grounds and established the Torat Emet Yeshiva.
The original Ottoman land deeds (kushan) to the site are currently displayed in the building along with other legal documents and photos of the famous rabbis who lived and taught on site.
After the 1929 Hebron massacre, the bodies of the Jewish victims, all the wounded and the other few Jewish survivors were held at the site prior to their expulsion from the city.
In 1948, the Jordanian army captured Hebron and converted the building to be used as a school. A bus terminal was built next door.
When city finally returned to Jewish hands in the 1967 Six Day War, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson turned over all rights to previously held Chabad property to the nascent Jewish settlement, giving his blessing to the young families seeking to repopulate the neighborhoods.
Many in the Israeli government were less than eager, however, to open the floodgates to young enthusiastic Jewish idealists. Several properties were instead leased to the existing Arab tenants.
It was only after a stabbing terror attack in 1982 that the Israeli government finally returned the building to Jewish hands.
At that time, Beit Romano finally reverted to Jewish ownership and underwent renovation and expansion.
To accommodate the growing demand by young families, temporary caravan homes, similar to a trailer park, were established on the site, despite steep bureaucratic opposition.
Future development plans were drawn up for a seven-story building with 28 apartments including a nursery school, medical clinic, underground parking and open public space. Formal building permits were secured in 2018.
Today, Beit Romano is the home of Yeshivat Shavei Hebron and its 300 students. A recreation of Rabbi Medini’s study and an exhibit of Chabad history in Hebron is on display.
Construction of the 31-unit building has finally begun, slowing easing the demand for Jewish housing and reclaiming the areas populated generations ago by Hebron’s thriving Jewish community.