In a bid to quash growing acrimony in his ruling party over the evacuation Friday of Jewish settlers from two Hebron homes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised swift checks on Sunday of the legality of the purported purchase of the buildings.
Border police evacuated several dozen Jewish settlers from the two houses on Friday morning, a day after they entered the buildings, claiming they had bought them from Palestinians.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon ordered their removal on Friday, calling them “intruders” and asserting they had acted in “brazen” breach of the law.
Netanyahu told cabinet ministers on Sunday that “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 added, “we are a nation of laws and must respect the rule of law.”
He 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.”
Ya’alon’s order to evacuate the homes set off a string of angry denunciation by right-wing politicians over the weekend.
In a Friday statement, the 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.
Three Knesset members from Likud and Jewish Home 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.
“I’m part of this coalition. I bear responsibility for what it does. In a political system, I am required and duty-bound to use my political power to affect the coalition’s policies – from the inside, of course,” he said.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads Jewish Home, 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, Gaza border communities and other “periphery” areas, in an apparent bid to take the power to settle West Bank housing disputes out of the defense minister’s hands.
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.”
According to “settler sources” cited by Israel Radio Sunday morning, a compromise agreement with Defense Ministry officials is in the works that would see them occupy one of the buildings while the legality of their claimed purchase of both is examined by officials.
Defense officials are reportedly demanding that all openings in the houses open toward the Jewish neighborhood of Avraham Avinu, and not have any openings toward Palestinian areas of the city, in order to prevent possible shooting or firebombing attacks.
Discussions on entering the second home have not yet begun, according to the radio report.