HEBRON, West Bank, AP – Jewish settlers who took over a marketplace in this Palestinian city four years ago said Monday they would leave voluntarily, averting a potentially violent confrontation with thousands of troops preparing to remove them.
Israel had agreed to clear the marketplace and the separate community of Amona under a commitment to the United States to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank. Palestinians and the international community view the outposts as seeds of future settlements.
The Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday rejected a last-ditch appeal from settlers to halt the Hebron evacuations, clearing the way for the removal operation to proceed. But the settlers agreed to leave after winning assurances they could return if a legal review determines the property is Jewish.
It would have marked the first forced removal of Jewish settlers since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in August. Some 7,000 Israeli soldiers and police had been scheduled to carry out the evacuation on Tuesday.
Settlers in Hebron, where 500 hard-line Jewish residents live in heavily guarded enclaves amid 160,000 Palestinians, had promised stiff resistance. Earlier this month, settlers set fire to a Palestinian house and threw eggs and chemicals at Israeli soldiers to protest the orders to leave the market area.
The market, used by Palestinian merchants, was closed by the Israeli military in 1994 after Jewish militant Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, killing 29 Palestinians. It never reopened.
Eight settler families moved into the market area in 2001 after Palestinian gunmen killed Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old baby, while her father was standing outside his home in Hebron’s Jewish settlement.
Under Monday’s deal, the eight families living in the market, including the Pass family, agreed to leave by the end of the day. But settlers will be permitted to return in a few months after legal ownership of the property is confirmed.
The settlers claim the property was owned by Jewish families for decades until Jordanian authorities seized it after the 1948 Israeli war of independence. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.
“We got this property from the ancestors of the Jewish community of Hebron,” said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community. “This is our land and we agreed to this sort of agreement to calm down the atmosphere in Hebron and to make sure that the Jewish families will return.”
Palestinians who had shops in the market said the compromise was unacceptable.
“By law, it’s our property and we will keep it and we will fight for it,” merchant Mohammed Nasserdin said of the shop he was forced to vacate a decade ago. “We will not accept any kind of settlement between the army and the settlers and we have to open our shops.”
Israeli security forces will now turn their attention to clearing settlers from Amona, an outpost north of Jerusalem. The Haaretz daily reported on its Web site that 300 right-wing activists went to Amona on Monday to resist the evacuation.
During last summer’s Gaza withdrawal, settlers resisted troops sent to remove them, but there was little major violence.