The Israeli military on Monday ordered dozens of Jewish settlers to evacuate a building they occupied last week in the heart of Hebron, the West Bank's most volatile Palestinian city.
The order could lead to a violent confrontation between soldiers and one of the most militant settler communities. Settlers have violently resisted such evacuations in the past, lashing out with attacks elsewhere in the West Bank.
The settlers' entry into the building before dawn on Thursday threatened to create another flashpoint in the biblical city of Hebron, the only place where Jews live in the heart of a West Bank city.
Hebron is the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of both Jews and Muslims. It has been a center of Israeli-Arab violence for decades. The burial site overlooks the three-story building the settlers entered last week.
Hebron settler leaders said about 10 Jewish families entered the building after it was purchased legally from a Palestinian landowner.
A spokesman for the roughly 70 settlers inside, Shlomo Levinger, said they moved into the building in the dead of night because they had received information that the Palestinian Authority had learned of the purchase and planned to take it over.
Military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said the settlers were ordered to leave by Tuesday afternoon or be forcibly removed, because the building was occupied without the military's authorization. He said the military was still determining whether the purchase was legitimate.
Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to delay the eviction and allow the courts to settle the matter. A spokesman for Netanyahu did not confirm or deny the reports.
Hebron settler leader David Wilder said settlers had not sought the military's authorization to move in to the building because they didn't think they would receive it.
The city's roughly 850 settlers live in heavily fortified enclaves in the midst of 180,000 Palestinians. In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military must approve property purchases.
Wilder said the expulsion order was political and insisted the purchase was legitimate.
"There are people who don't want to see Jews living in Hebron," Wilder said. "We are going to do everything we can to see this order is annulled."
He would not say what steps settlers planned to take or whether they would forcibly resist.
Settlers have labored to expand their foothold in Hebron for the past four decades, ever since Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in 1967. They say their activities are part of a campaign to pressure Israel to hold on to all of the West Bank, land they believe God gave the Jews.
The Jews in Hebron are just a small fraction of the half a million settlers who have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 1967. Palestinians claim those territories, along with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, for a future state. The Palestinians, backed by the international community, see all settlement there as illegitimate and undermining their statehood aspirations.
The Palestinian Authority considers land sales to Israelis to be a serious crime. In Hebron, Palestinian police said they detained two Palestinian men in an attempt to verify whether the building had been sold to a settler.
Also Monday, Israeli police said an ultra-Orthodox Jew was attacked by an ax-wielding Arab near the Old City of Jerusalem.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the Jewish man was slightly wounded in the head. The attacker fled, and police were searching for him.
The attack is the latest against Jews in Jerusalem in recent weeks after a relatively quiet period. Last week, a Palestinian man was charged with attempted murder in the stabbing of an Israeli soldier on Jerusalem's new light rail line.