REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intervened Tuesday on behalf of Jewish settlers who last week took occupancy of a disputed building in the restive West Bank city of Hebron, requesting that a military order to evict them be postponed.
But the Defense Ministry, which oversees Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, gave no indication that it was backing down from plans to remove about 100 settlers, using force if necessary.
Netanyahu asked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to give the settlers an unspecified period of time to prove their assertion that they purchased the property legally, according to government spokesman Mark Regev.
But the military says that the settlers’ occupation of the building, which took place during the night last week, is illegal because they failed to obtain the needed government authorization.
Worried about upsetting Hebron’s delicate security balance, the military issued an ultimatum to settlers to vacate voluntarily by 3 p.m. Tuesday. As of Tuesday evening, the settlers remained inside the property and the military had not moved to evict them.
“This is a very delicate zone and their staying can harm the stability of the area or might bring Palestinians into the streets," said Guy Inbar, a spokesman for the military’s civil administration. “That’s what we are trying to avoid.”
He said the military has not determined whether the settlers’ purchase contract is legal, but even if it is, he said they did not receive military authorization needed for West Bank transactions of this type.
“It is a fact that they are staying there illegally," he said.
If settlers are permitted to stay, it would mark the first new foothold by Jewish settlers in Hebron in years.
Currently several hundred Jewish settlers live in a heavily guarded, Israeli-controlled section of the city, surrounded by nearly 170,000 Palestinians. The tense situation has made Hebron one of the most volatile cities in the West Bank. The ancient city is revered by Jews and Muslims.
Settlers have won support from several right-wing Israeli lawmakers. The settlers say they purchased the house last year.
The Palestinian family that previously owned the property said some relatives had sold their interest to a Palestinian security official. It is being investigated whether that man, who is reportedly under arrest by the Palestinian Authority, subsequently sold the property to representatives of the settlers.
Hebron’s Palestinian mayor accused the settlers of forging the documents.
In a similar case three years ago, the military forcibly evicted Jewish settlers who had moved into a disputed property.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Palestinian children walk past an Israeli border policeman standing guard near a contested house in the center of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday. Credit: Jack Guez / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.