The Defense Ministry on Monday prevented coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) from visiting a contested home in the West Bank city of Hebron currently being occupied by Jewish squatters.
Last week, some 15 families moved into Machpela House, which for years has been at the center of legal wrangling over claims of ownership by a group of Jewish families who say they bought the site and Palestinians who say the purchase document was forged.
The Defense Ministry said in a statement that Bitan’s request to visit the Machpela House Monday afternoon was only received that morning, while normally such requests are made a week in advance.
After considering Bitan’s last-minute request, the IDF refused to allow the lawmaker to visit the house, citing “security concerns” and the building’s status as a closed military site.
The Defense Ministry said that the decision was approved by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s office.
Bitan, who said he was seeking to show his support for the settlers squatting in the building, which is near the Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site, called the IDF’s decision a “scandal.”
“It’s my right to visit Hebron,” he said in a statement.
He added that he was not given a reason for the denial of his request, saying he hoped it wasn’t “a deliberate, feeble and defensive policy of the Defense Ministry.”
The squatters have received support from Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), the latter of whom visited the site last week.
The IDF, which was not aware beforehand of the settlers’ plan to move into the building last week, has since declared the house a closed military site.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Liberman to hold off on any eviction plans, and representatives from both of their offices later met with leaders of the Machpela House squatters in an effort to reach a solution.
Sources close to the prime minister said that Netanyahu was looking to avoid having to evacuate the families and on Monday the Ynet news site reported that the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry were looking for legal grounds to allow the settlers to remain at the site.
Also on Monday, settler leader Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, moved into the Machpela House with his family as an “expression of solidarity” with the squatters and called on Netanyahu to prevent their evacuation.
In 2012, the same families briefly squatted in the building, but the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that rules on issues of West Bank land ownership — ruled that the settlers did not have sufficient evidence proving that they owned the property. The families were subsequently removed from the site.
The group has more than once attempted to appeal the decision, and last month the Civil Administration agreed to once again hear its bid to claim the property. However, the inquiry has not yet taken place, and the army order banning entry remains in effect.
AFP contributed to this report.