Settlers evicted from disputed Hebron building

Settler activist Shlomo Levinger, a brief tenant of the contested Machpela House in Hebron, ponders his next move after yesterday's eviction. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

HEBRON (JWN)—In a surprise operation on Wednesday afternoon, a contingent of some 150 Border Police SWAT team officers peacefully evicted the 15 settler families who had illegally occupied a Hebron apartment building last week.

The border policemen arrived in buses unexpectedly around 1 p.m. and the families were evicted from Machpela House without opposition. The action came as a surprise after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, meeting with a special ministerial committee last night, announced that the eviction would be delayed again until April 25. The first deadline for the eviction had passed on Tuesday at 3 p.m.

However, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein informed Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that, in his legal opinion, the building must be evacuated without delay. Weinstein said there was no need for a cabinet decision on the eviction, which should be carried out immediately, because of the importance of maintaining the rule of law.

“I won’t allow settlers to dictate how the government runs the country,” Barak told reporters, noting that the settlers’ request for a permit would still be reviewed, as would counter-claims of ownership by Palestinians, who insist the bill of sale for the building is a forgery.

“I will continue to act in order to safeguard democracy and law and order by ensuring the authority of the government over its citizens,” Barak said. “Attempts to clear up the request permitting the deal and the legality of the purchase will continue in a professional manner, without any delays. A situation in which illegal actions are being taken in order to influence government policy by creating facts on the ground cannot be allowed.”

Politicians who support the settlers were extremely critical of the eviction, particularly Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon of the Likud. Ya’alon, who participated in the meeting on Tuesday night, said that authority over issues regarding Judea and Samaria settlements must be taken away from Barak.

“Ehud Barak is acting against the government and against the settlements in Judea and Samaria. All that he is doing is fanning the flames,” Ya’alon said Wednesday.

“It is imperative to check that the settler’s documents of sale are not counterfeit. If it turns out that they are in order, the purchase must be approved and the settlers allowed entry. This is not a national, or a defense issue, the property rights need to be checked. Why does the defense minister claim that such a check will take weeks when it can be done in a few days?”

Barak returned fire at Ya’alon, saying the deputy prime minister was making remarks against him out of political considerations. “Unfortunately, Minister Ya’alon is combining cheap political concerns with defense decisions, harming the government’s ability to protect democracy and law and order,” officials close to Barak quoted him as saying.

Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said he was “speechless” at the action, and demanded that Barak be stripped of this aspect of his ministerial authority.

On the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing Meretz Party leader Zehava Gal-On said “the security forces fulfilled their role in upholding the rule of law.”

The settlers, who moved in last week, held a housewarming party in Machpela House Tuesday night, while the ministers debated their fate in Jerusalem. Defense Ministry officials said that, even if they had purchased the building legally, their entry—which Barak referred to as an “invasion”—had not been approved by the defense minister and was therefore illegal.