Israel's prime minister said Tuesday he has ordered a delay in the planned evacuation of Jewish settlers from a building they occupied in the West Bank, putting off a potentially violent standoff with Israeli security forces.
The settlers had been ordered to evacuate the building in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron by Tuesday afternoon. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he told his defense minister, who oversees policy in the occupied West Bank, to put the evictions on hold while a legal review is conducted.
"I am coordinated with the minister of defense. I asked him last night to wait with the eviction so we could check the facts, both legally and on the ground, and that is what we will do," Netanyahu told a news conference. He gave no indication how long that would take.
The settlers took over the house in Hebron in an overnight operation last week. The military ordered them to leave by Tuesday afternoon because they did not have the required permission to move in.
The deadline passed without any action, and the settlers remained inside the building.
The lack of action added new doubts about Netanyahu's government, which is dominated by nationalist and Orthodox Jewish parties, to take on settlers who break the law.
"Netanyahu's apparent support for these settlers' move is another proof that (his) priority is consolidating the occupation rather than negotiating its end," said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "Such attitude and behavior poses a serious challenge that the international community needs to deal with."
Last month, the government tried to bypass an Israeli Supreme Court order to dismantle a large West Bank settler enclave by March 31. The enclave, Migron, was built without government authorization on privately held Palestinian land, in violation of Israeli law.
The court rejected a government request to delay the evacuation until 2015, but gave it a four-month extension to work it out. Netanyahu has said he will respect the court decision.
Migron settlers, who zealously believe they have a God-given right to the West Bank, have said they will not go quietly.
The eviction order for the Hebron house similarly threatened to touch off a violent confrontation between security forces and a militant settler community. The biblical city is home to the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of both Jews and Muslims, and the only place where Jews live in the heart of a West Bank city. It has been a focus of Israeli-Arab violence for decades.
"We are staying in the house. It's not wishful thinking. As far as I understand, there is such a decision in the corridors of power," Shlomo Levinger, one of the settlers living in the Hebron building, told Channel 2 TV before Netanyahu made his remarks.
Hebron settlers and their supporters have violently resisted similar eviction orders, retaliating with attacks against Palestinians.
About 850 settlers now live in Hebron in heavily guarded enclaves among 180,000 Palestinians. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers enforce a rigid separation between the two sides.
Settlers say they bought the house from a Palestinian property owner, but the military said it had not yet ascertained whether the purchase was legitimate. That process could take days or weeks, military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said. The mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, told Army Radio that the purchase documents were fraudulent, and that the seller was not acting on behalf of the building's owner.
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 Israel captured those territories.
The Palestinians, backed by the international community, say the settlements are illegal and make it ever more difficult to establish their independent state.