TEL AVIV //Israel's hardline prime minister yesterday struck down an order to evict settlers from a contested building they took over illegally in the occupied West Bank, in a move activists and leftist politicians said was aimed to bolster his popularity on the right.
The step by Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the military's eviction order due to be carried out yesterday in the West Bank's most volatile city was blasted by Palestinians, who have refused to negotiate with Israel while settlement expansion continues.
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian Authority spokesman, said the building will only be evacuated with international pressure on Israel, and added: "This behavior is consistent with Netanyahu's general tendency of encouraging the consolidation of occupation through supporting settlers and the settlement process."
Mr Netanyahu's decision may have also been triggered by the fact that the US, Israel's staunchest ally and a critic of Jewish settlement expansion, has been focusing less on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and more on its upcoming domestic elections.
Mr Netanyahu has also issued no denial to an announcement on Monday by Jerusalem's right-leaning mayor that a new settlement of some 200 housing units be constructed in the mostly-Palestinian eastern part of the city. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
Washington yesterday did not immediately issue a comment on the Hebron building or the East Jerusalem settlement.
Mr Netanyahu's move on Hebron was the second time in weeks that he showed open support for settlers on a controversial issue, spurring speculation of his bid to draw right-wing backing ahead of possible elections that some analysts say could come as soon as October.
Dror Etkes, a veteran Israeli anti-settlement activist, told The National: "This is another example of how Netanyahu is participating in helping settlers violate the law. This is clearly for political purposes - he wants to be portrayed as the hardliner head of Likud."
Some Israeli media commentators said yesterday that the premier may have also sought to avoid a violent confrontation between the 100 settlers in the building and military forces ahead of the Jewish Passover holiday that begins on Friday.
The prime minister, speaking yesterday during a scheduled address summarising his three-year-old premiership, played down media speculation of a possible clash with his defence minister, Ehud Barak, who had issued the order.
"I am coordinating with the defence minister. I asked him to hold off on the evacuation so we can check the matter, and that is what we are doing," said Mr Netanyahu.
A spokesman for Mr Netanyahu, Mark Regev, said in an interview with The National that the premier wanted to "ensure that the settlers in the house have handful opportunity to make their legal case."
The settlers say they bought the property last year from its Palestinian owner. According to Israeli media reports yesterday, some members of the Palestinian family that had previously owned the site sold their interest to a Palestinian security official. That official, according to the reports, is currently being detained by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and his alleged sale of the property to representatives of the settlers is being investigated.
The military on Monday ordered the settlers to leave the property, which they took over last Wednesday night, by yesterday afternoon. Their occupation of the building was illegal because they did not obtain the required permission from Israel's ministry of defence when making the purchase.
Mr Netanyahu's political allies on the right aligned with his decision yesterday. Limor Livnat, a hardline government minister from the premier's Likud party, condemned Mr Barak for the eviction order. The defence minister "is seeking a policy of not allowing Jews to live in Judea and Samaria," she said during an interview with an Israeli radio station, using the biblical Hebrew name for the West Bank.
Last month, Mr Netanyahu's government tried to delay a Supreme Court decision to evacuate Migron, the biggest Jewish outpost in the West Bank built without state permission. The military had been due to dismantle Migron by March 31 and the government asked the court to delay that until 2015. However, the court rejected the request, insisting the government must enforce the law in the West Bank and ordering the eviction to take place by August 1.
Israeli citizens are forbidden from buying real estate in the West Bank without prior approval from the ministry of defence, which seeks to avoid unexpected land disputes with Palestinians that may attract negative attention to Israel's occupation, Mr Etkes said. The international community views Jewish settlements as illegal, while Israel considers much of its settlements as authorised.
According to Mr Etkes, settlers or settler-backed groups have purchased dozens of buildings or plots of land privately from Palestinians without government authorisation since Israel occupied the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The last time an eviction of such a purchase took place was in 2008, when security forces stormed a disputed building in Hebron and dragged out 250 settlers, many of them teenagers, who battled them with fists, kicks and chemicals and later set fires to Palestinian homes in the city.
Several hundred Jewish settlers live in a heavily-guarded, Israeli-controlled part of Hebron, an ancient city revered by both Jews and Muslims, surrounded by nearly 170,000 Palestinians.