HEBRON, West Bank — Israeli police evicted Jewish settlers Wednesday from a house in this volatile West Bank city, heading off what they feared was an attempt to expand settlement enclaves here.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to allay criticism of the move by pledging to secure authorization for three settlement outposts in the West Bank that were built without government approval. He also said he'd ask the attorney general to "find a solution" to prevent the razing of a fourth outpost built on private Palestinian land.
Israeli officials said the Hebron settlers were being evicted because they'd moved in without the required permission from the Israeli military government in the West Bank. Netanyahu suggested that his government ultimately might approve the expansion of the Hebron settlements, however.
"We are strengthening Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names, "and we are strengthening Jewish settlement in Hebron, the city of the patriarchs, but there is a principle we abide by: We do it while observing the law."
The issue of Jewish settlers in the West Bank remains a volatile one. There are 120 officially established Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but dozens of others were set up without government approval. Netanyahu's government, whose Cabinet includes several supporters of the settler movement, has taken few steps to dismantle the unauthorized settlements. All the settlements are deemed illegal under international law.
In Hebron, about 850 Jewish settlers live in a cluster of heavily guarded enclaves among 180,000 Palestinians in a part of the city that's controlled by the Israeli army and where movement and access by Palestinians are heavily restricted.
Violence between settlers and Palestinians is common here, and the takeover of the house near the Tomb of the Patriarchs shrine, where tradition holds that the biblical patriarchs and their wives are buried, threatened to heighten tensions.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu intervened to delay the eviction of the settlers, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the eviction a day later, saying the move was necessary to uphold the law because the settlers hadn't asked permission to be there.
"We will not permit a situation where actions are taken to dictate facts on the ground to the authorities," Barak said.
Netanyahu's office said the prime minister had agreed to the eviction after the country's attorney general ruled that the house had to be vacated because the military hadn't authorized its occupation.
The settlers claim that they bought the property from its Palestinian owner, but the mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, said the sale documents had been forged. Such transactions are often done through straw men used to mask the identities of the Palestinians making the sale to representatives of the settlers.
Barak said the ownership of the house would be determined later.
Hallel Gonen, 16, who was in the house with her parents, said police SWAT teams smashed the front door open with a sledgehammer, then hustled the settlers — most of them children — out of the building. She said that only about a dozen people were present, after most of the settlers who'd occupied the house had returned to their original homes to clean them for the approaching Passover holiday.
The settlers made no effort to resist eviction.
Border police ringed the three-story building after it was cleared, and officers were posted on the roof. Officials said security forces would remain in the building until its legal status was verified.
(Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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