- PM tries to strike balance between settlement backers, laws on settlement growth
- Hebron is the most contested city in the West Bank
- Official says eviction will help ease tension and is "a good step forward"
- The eviction comes amid upcoming Netanyahu-Fayyad meeting
Israeli police evicted 15 Jewish settlers from a an illegally occupied house in the restive West Bank city of Hebron on Wednesday following a weeklong showdown between the settler community and Israel's Defense Ministry, which administers the occupied territory.
"We are determined to make sure that the rule of law and the authority of the state of Israel over all its citizens will be assured. When there is a violation, it will be put back to track," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters shortly after the operation and explained that "the house was taken over by citizens against the law."
The men, women and children were removed without any violent resistance, police said.
About two dozen settlers moved into the Hebron house in the middle of the night last Thursday, claiming they had legally purchased it from a Palestinian man.
But Palestinian authorities, including Hebron police Chief Ramadan Awad, disputed that the purchase was made legally.
"Our investigation shows no evidence that the house was sold to settlers by Palestinians," Awad told CNN.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement Wednesday that tried to strike a balance between demands from the settlement-supporting members of his governing coalition and the laws regulating settlement growth.
"We strengthen the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria and we strengthen it in Hebron, the city of our fathers," he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. "But there is one principle we maintain: We do all that while abiding the law and will continue to do so."
Imad Hamdan, general director of the Hebron rehabilitation committee of the Old City of Hebron, said the eviction process will help to reduce tensions.
"I believe this is a good step forward," he said.
Hamdan said that if the settlers appeal the eviction, "we are going to go against them and we will prove the ownership of this building to whom it belongs. They have evicted the settlers from the house, but they have not removed any furniture or belongings of the settlers that they have been bringing into the house since they have illegally moved in," Hamdan said.
Responding to those claims, Barak stressed that the facts "will be checked according to the legal standards by the proper authorities."
On Monday, the Israeli Defense Ministry, 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.
Hebron is the largest and most contested city in the West Bank. It is home to more than 180,000 Palestinians and several hundred Jewish settlers who live in an enclave protected by the Israeli military. Movement for Palestinians in the area is extremely limited.
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.
Netanyahu asked Barak on Monday to postpone the eviction to allow the settlers to present their legal case, but Barak ordered the operation to go ahead.
The eviction triggered an immediate wave of criticism from many members of Netanyahu's coalition who have become increasingly critical of Barak's continued role in the government.
"Defense Minister Ehud Barak is dragging the entire government into direct confrontation with the settlers," said Danny Danon, the outspoken deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, and Likud party member. "Netanyahu must replace Barak without delay. He is running a failed political campaign on the account of the settlers. We will not give up and will pursue legal proceedings to allow the acquisition of the house," he told CNN.
The eviction followed an announcement from Netanyahu on Wednesday seeking to legalize construction in the West Bank settlements of Bruchin, Sansana and Rechalim.
Further development on the three West Bank outposts has been banned, according to settlement watchdog group Peace Now, because they have been built on private Palestinian land.
Netanyahu also asked his attorney general to develop a legal solution that would prevent the planned destruction of housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.
The Israeli government is under court order to demolish the houses built in the settlement by May 1 of this year.
Danon welcomed the decision and said: "These houses were built under the consent and sponsoring of the government, there is no reason to demolish them."
The eviction comes as the Israeli government announced that Netanyahu will meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad next week in an effort to restart direct negotiations.
In retribution for the eviction, Hamdan added, Israeli settlers from Tel Rumeida in the old city of Hebron burned a tent that was set up by Palestinian activists in protest of the taking over of the house. No one was injured.
A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces told CNN that "the structure will remain closed off until all the legal issues will be determined."