- Two dozen settlers moved into a Hebron home in the middle of the night
- Palestinian authorities say purchase was legal; Israel says paperwork is missing
- Relations between Israelis, Palestinians in Hebron have been marked by hostility, tension
- City is believed to be burial site of Abraham, home to the Cave of the Patriarch, Ibrahimi mosque
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requested that the country¹s Defense Ministry postpone a planned eviction of Israeli settlers who occupied a home in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron.
Some two dozen settlers moved into the Hebron house in the middle of the night last Thursday, claiming they had legally purchased the building from a Palestinian man.
Palestinian authorities have disputed the purchase was made legally, and on Monday the Israeli Ministry of Defense, citing the absence of required paperwork and prior notification, ordered the settlers to move out of the home by Tuesday afternoon or be subject to forcible eviction.
Addressing the issue with reporters Tuesday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he had been in contact with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and that he had "asked him to delay the eviction so we can check the facts."
Netanyahu said the request for a delay in the eviction did not represent a change in government policy and applied specifically to the home in question.
"I would differentiate between widening the Jewish presence in Hebron, which sounds like an act of policy, an act of expansive decision making, and a house."
Earlier Tuesday government spokesman Mark Regev said the prime minister asked for the postponement in order "to give the settlers time to make their case," suggesting that additional time was needed to assess the validity of the settler's ownership claims.
Hebron is the largest and most contested city in the West Bank. It is home to more than 160,000 Palestinians and a 500-person Israeli settler minority who live in an enclave protected by a constant Israeli military presence.
The city, which is believed to be the biblical burial site of Abraham, is home to the religious holy site known as the Cave of the Patriarch to Jews and the Ibrahimi mosque to Muslims.
Relations between Israelis and Palestinians living in Hebron have been marked by years of hostility and tension that have frequently erupted into violence.
It was not immediately clear if Barak would adhere to the request or not, but the issue has become politicized in Israel with many of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition members expressing support for the Hebron settlers and calling on Barak not to initiate an eviction.
The deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset and Likud Party member Danny Danon suggested that the eviction order was a political move by Barak, who heads the governing coalition's only centrist party and warned of chaos if it was carried out.
"Barak's pro-Palestinian agenda shows how little he understands of his Jewish heritage," Danon said in statement. "His actions are extremely dangerous, and if not curtailed they may lead us on the path of a civil war that no Israeli wants."
Palestinians in Hebron expressed great skepticism about the settlers' purchase of the home, characterizing the move as nothing more than a state-sanctioned land grab based on fraudulent paperwork.
Imad Hamdan, the general director of the Rehabilitation Committee of the Old City in Hebron, told CNN that if the eviction order was not carried out, Palestinians would pursue legal action to force the settlers out of the home.
"This is a Palestinian area, and it should be a pure Palestinian area," he said. "Those people who are trying to occupy certain spots in the old city, and we recommend for them to leave this area for Palestinians and seek another places."
Settlers in Hebron are hoping that the Netanyahu government will stand firm and prevent the eviction, at least until a court rules on the validity of their purchase, which they say was done in full accordance with the law.
"The documents are 100% legal; there is no problem whatsoever," said Hebron settler spokesman David Wilder, describing the purchase of the Hebron home.
"Barak does not have the authority to order the expulsion of the people from the building without getting that authority from the entire government, which he does not have."