HEBRON, West Bank (AP) – Israel will remove Jewish settlers who are holed up in a disputed house in this Palestinian city in violation of a Supreme Court eviction order, Israel’s deputy defense minister said Saturday.
The settlers have said they won’t budge, and supporters have been flocking to Hebron in recent days.
On Saturday, thousands of Israelis visited volatile Hebron in honor of biblical matriarch Sarah, and some of the visitors were expected to stay on as reinforcements in the event of eviction. Israeli troops lined the streets to protect the visitors as they walked in downtown Hebron.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other top security were to meet Sunday to discuss the next steps, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details concerning the consultations.
Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court gave the residents of the four-story house three days to leave voluntarily. They ignored the deadline, and it’s now up to Israeli security forces to evict the settlers.
“The Supreme Court order concerning the evacuation of the house will be carried out,” Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said Saturday, according to a statement by his office. However, Israeli governments have traditionally been reluctant to take on militant settlers, and often prefer to negotiate with them. For example, the government is holding talks over the fate of dozens of unauthorized squatter camps in the West Bank, even though it promised the U.S. to remove them.
The disputed house is located on the edge of Hebron, next to the large Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. Settlers moved into the house in March 2007, claiming they bought it from a Palestinian. The Palestinian owner denied the sale. The high court said the settlers should move out until the ownership dispute is settled.
The house is in a key location, providing another link between Kiryat Arba and settler enclaves in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. The center of Hebron, where the enclaves are located, is under full Israeli control, while the rest of the city is administered by the Palestinian Authority.
On Saturday, visitors streamed to the disputed house. An army post guarding the settlers was set up on the roof, just above a banner reading “Supreme Court, Sodom,” a reference to the biblical city destroyed by God for the sins of its inhabitants. “Judea is Jewish,” read another sign.
In recent days, settlers have clashed with Israeli security forces and Palestinian residents in the area. In one incident, they punctured tires of several police vans, threw turpentine at a soldier, defaced headstones in a nearby Muslim cemetery and wrote slogans insulting Prophet Muhammad on the facade of a mosque.
Vilnai called on settler leaders to step in. “We are talking about a small group of lawbreakers, which gives a bad name to all the settlers,” he said. “But the leadership also has to take responsibility.”