Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday evening that the planned evacuation of a group of Jewish settlers who occupied a house in Hebron had been put on hold.
Following a meeting with Defense minister Ehud Barak, Minister for Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon and Minister without portfolio Benny Begin, it was decided that if the sale proved illegal, the eviction would take place in 25 days, Channel 10 News reported.
Netanyahu told a news conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday that he asked Barak to postpone the eviction while the case was being investigated. He did not say how long that would take. He said he and Barak were “coordinated” on their handling of the affair.
The prime minister also said it was government policy to expand Jewish settlement in the Israeli-controlled section of the divided West Bank city.
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, a deadline set by the Israeli military authorities for the settlers residing in Hebron’s Beit Hamachpela to file purchase permits with the Defense Ministry had passed, but ministry officials said they would decide when to conduct the forced eviction according to “operational considerations.”
When the deadline was reached, settler spokespeople said all the necessary documentation confirming their legal right to the building had been handed over. And military sources said the documentation was insufficient, since it did not include the defense minister’s authorization for them to move into the property.
In an explicit gesture of backing, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz visited the house on Tuesday morning to help attach a mezuza to the doorpost, a traditional ceremony that marks the beginning of residence in a new home.
Dozens of Israelis entered the empty three-story house, located next to the Cave of the Patriarchs, last Wednesday in an attempt to cement claims of ownership on the property. The settlers claimed they purchased it legally from a Palestinian owner
“Jews have the right to buy property anywhere in the world and in Hebron in particular,” Katz told reporters.
“Anyone who wants to come here and undermine the legality of the purchase will have to deal with this fact: The purchase is legal and doesn’t infringe on the rights of anyone,” Katz said. “The government should be supporting the settlers in the continued Jewish settlement of Hebron.”
The purchase and occupation of the house has been the focus of controversy since settlers moved into the building last week. Whereas the setters claim they bought the premises legally, the mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, said he knew for sure that their documents were forgeries.
“The person who sold them the house is not the owner,” Osaily told Army Radio. “All the documents are fakes, and this is not the first time they [the settlers] have faked things.”
Osaily said that the settlers’ occupation of the building will not improve relationships between Jews and Arabs.
“Does buying another house bring peace?” he said. “It only causes more problems. Without political hope we are like a pressure cooker that is ready to burst.”
David Wilder, spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, defended the occupation of the house and dismissed a legal requirement to first obtain permission from the Defense Ministry before inhabiting properties in the West Bank.
“The law is a disgrace. Why should a Jew need permission [to take over a property]?” Wilder told Army Radio.”We expect the State of Israel and the prime minister to approve occupying the house.”
Settlers said they would resist if the military tried to force them out.
“At this point, we’re expecting the use of force,” one of the settlers told Channel 10 News.
A senior Defense Ministry official said earlyTuesday that the army had given the families in Beit Hamachpela until 3 p.m. to present their purchase documents to the military authorities. Barring that, they would be evicted “subject to operational considerations.” The official expressed doubt that the eviction would take place Tuesday.
Several Likud ministers immediately criticized the order, saying it was premature as it preempted a ministerial discussion of the matter. On Monday night, Netanyahu asked Barak to allow the settlers to exhaust all legal avenues before the military carried out the eviction.
Contention over the house has spread to the political arena, with right-wing ministers and MKs attacking Barak for acting independently of government policy in supporting the evacuation.
Coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) accused Barak of conducting a “putsch” and accusing him of threatening evacuation in order to garner votes from the left.
Israel Radio reported that Meretz party leader Zehava Gal-on criticized the prime minister for giving in to extreme right-wing ministers and said that the settlers only managed to obtain the empty building because local Palestinians have been driven from the area.
“Hebron is a ghost town for Jews only and we have no interest in holding on to it,” Galon said.
The building in Hebron is the latest in a series of buildings that Israeli residents in the area have attempted to claim. Settlers have been attempting to purchase property in Hebron for several years; many of the purchases have been contested in court.
In 2008, the IDF evacuated settlers who had moved into the Beit Hameriva, or House of Contention, located between Hebron and Kiryat Arba. In that case, the High Court ruled the settlers did not have a solid claim to the four-story building.
AP contributed to this report.