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Israel police clear settlers from contested site in Hebron

April 4, 2012 |  7:06 am

Hebron-evict

REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Jewish settlers attempting to gain a new foothold in the restive West Bank city of Hebron were evicted Wednesday from a disputed building that they had occupied since last week.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the approximately 100 settlers were removed because they failed to get military permission before moving into the site.

Settlers claim to have purchased the three-story building legally from a Palestinian owner, but security officials said their documents have not been verified and their presence in the Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron’s Old City threatened to disrupt the ancient city’s delicate security balance.

Hebron is home to about 170,000 Palestinians and about 500 Jewish settlers, who live in a heavily guarded, Israeli-controlled section of the city.

Barak said military officials would examine the settlers’ property claim but that it was essential to uphold the rule of law.

“We will not allow a situation where actions that are against the law are taken in an attempt to dictate to the authority," he said Wednesday, according to Israeli media.

Israeli police carried out the eviction, which officials said was done quickly and without injuries. Only about 15 occupants, including many children, were home during the afternoon raid.

The standoff began last week when about 15 families moved onto the property in the middle of the night. The building is located near the Cave of the Patriarchs in the center of Hebron, a city revered by both Jews and Muslims.

Members of a Palestinian family that previously owned the property acknowledged that some relatives may have sold their shares last year to someone who may have, in turn, sold the house to representatives for settlers. But other Palestinians dispute that the house was ever sold, accusing the settlers of forging documents.

The incident has divided Israel’s right-wing government, with some lawmakers expressing support for the settlers and other calling for them to leave. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to straddle the issue, issuing a vaguely worded statement that asked Barak to delay the eviction, but refrained from using his authority to cancel it. Late Tuesday, Netanyahu said at a news conference that he and Barak were acting “in coordination.”

Both Barak and Netanyahu took sharp criticism Wednesday from settler groups and conservative lawmakers, who accused them of betraying Israel’s settlement movement.

Some predicted the eviction would trigger revenge attacks by settler extremists, who over the last year have escalated their attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, burning mosques, olive trees and cars.

“Let no one be surprised if mosques burn because when [Jewish] children witness such a violent evacuation from a legally occupied house, I cannot tell them not to act,” Bentzi Grubstein, a Hebron settler leader, told Israel Radio.

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-- Edmund Sanders

Photo: Israeli security forces evict a group of settlers from a disputed building in Hebron on Wednesday. Credit: Hazem Bader / AFP/Getty Images