Settlers braced for confrontation in Hebron

Cycling helmets have been distributed as hundreds of Jewish settlers defying an Israeli High Court evacuation order in the flashpoint city of Hebron braced for a possible confrontation with the police.



About 100 Jewish settlers on Wednesday defied a High Court order to evacuate a house in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, and braced for possible confrontation with police.

"I fear excesses as we don't control all those who support our cause," said Malakhie Levinger, mayor of the nearby Kyriat Arba settlement.

Settlers have distributed cycling helmets to teenagers in readiness for any confrontation.

"We won't use violence but we will not allow anyone to hit our children with impunity," said Uri Ariel, an MP of the National Union party.

The settlers rallied support from religious and right-wing politicians and from fellow hardline settlers across the Israeli-occupied West Bank to resist Sunday's order.

The court ruling set a Wednesday deadline for the settlers to move out. In the event they stand firm, it ordered the state to empty the house within 30 days, raising fears of violence between security forces and hardliners.

"The battle for this house is in reality a battle for the land of Israel," said Dov Lior, the rabbi of the nearby Kyriat Arba settlement and a spiritual leader of nationalist right-wingers.

Hardline settlers believe that Jews, as God's "chosen people" have a divine right to the entire biblical land of Israel, including the Palestinian territories.

"We will defend this house with our bodies," said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in Hebron.

Settlers claim they bought the four-storey building from a Palestinian, who denies the deal had been completed. Police say the settlers' ownership documents were forged.

Dozens of settlers have lived in the building they call "the house of peace" since March 2007, and four more families have joined them since the court order.

"We will stay here as long as there is a possibility the residents will be evacuated," said Ronit Yaakov, a mother of nine who moved into the house with her family on Tuesday.

And right-wing Israeli MP Rabbi Nissim Zeev said he was setting up office in the house in solidarity with the settlers.

Zeev belongs to the religious Shas party, a key ally in the governing coalition. He spent the night with the settlers following an "emergency meeting" on Tuesday that brought about 1,000 supporters to Kyriat Arba.

The settlers also planned to capitalise on the anticipated arrival of about 10,000 pilgrims over the weekend, when Jews mark the biblical partriarch Abraham's purchase of the land that houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where an extremist settler massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994.

The house is located half-way between the tomb and the Kyriat Arba settlement.

Otniel Schneller, an MP from the governing Kadima party, expressed solidarity with the settlers at Tuesday's meeting, but also urged them not to resort to violence should security forces be deployed to evict them.

He said he was trying to convince the defence ministry to allow the settlers to remain in the building

"I urge the defence minister not to evacuate the house two months before the elections," he told the settlers in reference to the February 10 vote called after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in September.

With more than 170,000 Palestinian residents, Hebron is the largest town in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 war, along with east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai, the Golan Heights.

It has long been a flashpoint because of a settlement of around 600 hardline Jews in the heart of the town and the 6,500 settlers who live in Kyriat Arba, on the city's outskirts.

The international community considers West Bank settlements illegal and the Palestinians say they are a major obstacle in the US-backed peace talks relaunched a year ago.

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