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Amid Hebron tussle, PM to give ministers power over West Bank disputes

Move to create ministerial panel will strip Defense Minister Ya’alon of ability to evict settlers after right-wingers cried foul on Hebron evacuation

Border Policemen on guard after Jewish settlers were evacuated from two homes in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron on January 22, 2016. (AFP/Hazem Bader)
Border Policemen on guard after Jewish settlers were evacuated from two homes in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron on January 22, 2016. (AFP/Hazem Bader)

In an effort to calm tensions within his Knesset coalition over the evacuation of Jewish settlers from two Hebron homes on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday moved to strip his defense minister of the power to deal with such cases.

The establishment of a ministerial committee on settlements comes at the request of Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and will effectively remove the authority to evacuate settlers from their homes in West Bank settlements from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Netanyahu did not say who would sit on the committee.

Jewish Home party leader Bennett called on Netanyahu to implement an article in the Likud-Jewish Home coalition agreement mandating a cabinet committee to deal with settlement and housing issues in the West Bank, as a number of coalition lawmakers threatened to rebel in upcoming votes to protest the evacuation..

On Friday, Ya’alon ordered their removal several dozen Jewish settlers from two houses in Hebron, a day after they entered the buildings, claiming they had bought them from Palestinians. The defense minister called the settlers “intruders” and asserted they had acted in “brazen” breach of the law, as they did not have proper occupancy permits.

Ya’alon’s order set off a string of angry condemnations by right-wing politicians over the weekend, with some right-wing lawmakers threatening to boycott coalition votes unless the settlers were allowed to return to the buildings.

Netanyahu, who sided with Ya’alon’s decision, promised cabinet members a swift investigation of the legality if the alleged purchase of the buildings and said Sunday the settlers would soon be allowed back in the homes.

“The government supports the settlement [project] at all times, especially in these days when it faces a terror onslaught with determination and courage. At the same time,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting. “We are a nation of laws and must respect the rule of law.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, Jerusalem. November 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, speaks at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem on November 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu vowed that “as soon as the purchase process is approved, we will allow the [buyers] to take possession of the two Hebron homes, as happened in similar incidents in the past. The examination [of the purchase] begins today. It will be carried out as quickly as possible, and in any case, if it isn’t completed within a week, I will make sure a report on the issue will be submitted to the cabinet within a week.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (left) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on January 24, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (left) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem on January 24, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

The right-wing Jewish Home party called the evacuation “irresponsible, bullheaded and inflammatory.” It castigated Ya’alon’s focus on alleged settler breaches of the law at a time when Israel was being targeted by Palestinian terrorism.

Over the weekend, several Knesset members from Likud and Jewish Home parties threatened to boycott coalition votes unless the settlers were allowed to return to the buildings, sparking talk of a “coalition crisis” given the ruling government’s razor-thin 61-59 majority in the Knesset.

Other Likud lawmakers were also critical of the move: Likud ministers Ze’ev Elkin and Yariv Levin protested the evacuation, and Levin said he would seek to approve the return of the settlers to the buildings at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich, one of the lawmakers who said he would not vote with the coalition over the crisis, told Army Radio Sunday that he was “not trying to topple the coalition. It’s a good coalition doing many good things. But I’m not going to vote with it” until the matter is resolved.

Ya’alon slammed the critics of his evacuation order.

“The State of Israel is a nation of laws, and I have no intention of compromising when the law is broken,” he said in a statement Friday. “In the case of the homes in Hebron, the law was brazenly broken. In order to take possession of a house, one must carry out several legal steps, none of which were carried out here. For this reason, the intruders were evacuated.”

On Sunday, Ya’alon went further, telling Army Radio that “with MK Smotrich, and unfortunately with others in my party, I have no common ground, because they undermine the rule of law, and don’t call Jewish terror ‘terror’ [as Smotrich refused to do in a Facebook post last month], or squat in houses and incite against the rule of law.

“I have no common ground with such people, and we won’t march to the tune of such marginal people. Rule of law is not a question of right or left — this isn’t political, but a clear issue of how the state has to function,” he said.

Ya’alon wasn’t opposed to the purchase, he said, but was concerned about the legality of the entry into the homes: “This is a very clear issue. I support settlement, and that’s not a secret. But first and foremost I support the rule of law. On Thursday, there was an illegal occupying of two houses that they claim to have purchased. We have to check if there was a valid purchase. Moreover, to take possession of homes in Hebron you have to obtain a security permit, and you don’t rush to take these sorts of provocative steps. So I ordered the evacuation, and [the issue] will be checked today.”

The settlers entered the homes near the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Thursday, using crowbars to break in, and raising the Israeli flag on the roof. They claimed the homes were secretly bought from the Palestinian owners.

Palestinians said the buildings were taken over illegally and they clashed with the settlers. The riots were broken up by security forces.

The IDF has forbidden entry into the buildings, posting soldiers outside to prevent anyone from going in.

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