Some 15 Israeli families illegally entered and were squatting in a disputed house near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday night in a move that was likely to further inflame tensions over holy sites.
The settlers went into the Machpela House saying it was a response to the government’s prevarications over security measures at the Temple Mount.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, the group’s spokesman Shlomo Levinger said the decision to occupy the structure was made in response to “government zig-zagging” regarding violence surrounding the Temple Mount.
He insisted that the five-story building in front of the Tomb of the Patriarchs had been lawfully purchased by the Israelis from an original Palestinian owner, but Palestinians contest this.
In 2012, the same number of 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, which has since been declared a closed military zone.
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 still remains in effect.
Nevertheless, the settlers issue a statement demanding the government “proudly raise the banner of settlement and loyalty to the Land of Israel,” and also called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow them to remain in the building.
Security forces arrived at the scene and were preventing anyone else from entering the building.
The Peace Now settlement watchdog called on authorities to evacuate the settlers immediately. “After their claims of ownership had been denied, the settlers have decided to take the law into their own hands and establish an illegal settlement that might ignite the region,” the NGO said in a statement.
There is constant friction between Hebron’s 200,000 Palestinian residents and several hundred Israeli settlers who live in the heart of the city under heavy military guard.
The squatting comes amidst continued tensions surrounding the Temple Mount. Late Monday night, Israel removed security cameras along with metal detectors installed outside the Mount, in a bid to defuse spiraling tensions that have set Jerusalem and the West Bank aflame in recent days.
The security measures had been set up last week in the wake of a terror attack at the holy site on July 14 in which three Arab Israelis used guns smuggled into the compound to kill two police officers standing guard nearby.
AFP contributed to this report.