A simmering dispute set to bring the house down

IDF fears violent clashes after settlers refuse to leave a disputed building.

By Yaakov Katz, November 27, 2008
Israeli soldiers address young inhabitants of the Hebron building that has become the focus of an angry battle between the state and settlers

Israeli soldiers address young inhabitants of the Hebron building that has become the focus of an angry battle between the state and settlers

Soldiers pose on the rooftop for pictures, young women with scarves covering their heads stuff laundry into washing machines lining the hallway, and teenage boys with large kippot and sidelocks sit in a room nearby listening attentively to a rabbi's sermon.

All this is happening in a settler-squatted four-story building in Hebron on a road that links the settlement of Kiryat Arba and the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The building, now the focus of national attention due to the High Court of Justice's decision last week that it must be evacuated until a dispute over its ownership is resolved, is inhabited by 25 families as well as a mix of several dozen young teenage boys and girls. A Shas parliamentarian has also opened an office in the building.

The building has several names. The settlers call it the House of Peace, the Israeli media calls it the Disputed Home and the IDF calls it the Red House, because of the red-painted shop fronts at ground level. The High Court had given the settlers three days to leave voluntarily. They refused and it is now up to the Defence Ministry to evacuate the house, an operation that Deputy Minister Matan Vilnai vows will happen in the coming weeks.

Tension is high in the building and last week violence erupted, leaving one Israeli soldier wounded after turpentine was poured on to his face. Settlers also clashed with Palestinian villagers, slashed the tyres of police and IDF patrol vehicles and scrawled the words, "Mohammad is a Pig" on the wall of a village mosque and on gravestones in a Muslim cemetery.

"The High Court's instructions to evacuate the building will be carried out," Mr Vilnai warned. "The law will be enforced in the West Bank and violence against soldiers, policemen and Palestinians will not be tolerated."

The settlers claim that they bought the home over two years ago for $1 million (£653,000) from a local Hebron Palestinian. The Palestinian owner has denied the sale, and even though the settlers have provided a videotape of the transaction as well as documentation, the court has ordered them to evacuate the building until the dispute is settled in an IDF court.

The settlers do not plan to leave the building voluntarily, said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.

"Our purchase of the home was legal and the attempts to evacuate us are politically motivated," Mr Wilder said from the roof of the four-story building that on one side overlooks the settlement of Kiryat Arba and on the other the city of Hebron and the Worshipper's Way, scene of a 2002 gun attack that killed 12 Israelis including commander of the Hebron Brigade, Dror Weinberg.

When the settlers bought the building with money donated by an anonymous American Jew, they began renovating the interior with the aim of turning the building into apartments.

The IDF quickly stopped the work and today everything is grey concrete - the walls, stairs and floors. The building was linked up with the sewage line but the IDF refused to permit the settlers to connect to the Hebron power grid and the building is powered by a massive fuel-operated generator.

In one of the rooms, a group of young teenage girls sit around chatting. Asked where they are from, one says she came from another illegal outpost in the West Bank, Migron, two-and-a-half weeks ago.
"We are here to stay," she says dismissing questions about why the group is not in school. "This is our school right here."

The IDF fears that the families inside the building and particularly the young far-right activists that have moved in will violently resist an evacuation. There are also fears in the military that religious soldiers will refuse orders to evacuate the home. Some right-wing rabbis have already issued Halachic decrees forbidding soldiers and policemen from participating in the operation.

Mr Wilder says that while the settlers will not go quietly as they did during the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, they are not planning a violent confrontation. Inhabitants of the home have however been welding metal plates to the walls and doors to barricade the building ahead of a possible evacuation.

"The level of violence will depend on the evacuating forces," he says. "We won't start although I do believe the saying that extremism breeds extremism."

Last updated: 3:05pm, November 27 2008