Hebron settlers pitch hut, claim contested house

HEBRON, West Bank (AP) — Israeli settlers on Tuesday pitched a Sukkah, or makeshift hut marking a Jewish harvest festival, outside a contested house in the West Bank city of Hebron in a new claim to ownership.

A few hundred settlers live in several heavily fortified enclaves in the tense city of 170,000 Palestinians, who view each new settler bridgehead with alarm.

Months of wrangling over the house in downtown Hebron took a decisive turn on Monday when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, responding to the fatal shooting of an Israeli soldier in Hebron a day earlier, said settlers should be allowed to move into the building.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has since given the go-ahead, but further approvals are needed before settlers can move in, said Yaalon aide Ofer Harel. He declined to elaborate.

Staking their claim Tuesday, settlers set up a Sukkah outside the multi-family house. A banner on the Sukkah read, referring to the house: “We paid for it. We bought it. It’s ours.”

Late Monday, Israeli Housing Minister Uri Ariel and two pro-settler legislators spent time in the building in a show of presence, said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. He said settlers are skeptical of Netanyahu’s promises.

Settlers briefly occupied the house last year, claiming they purchased it from a Palestinian, but the military evicted them at the time, saying they lacked the proper authorization.

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said the building has more than a dozen Palestinian owners who are contesting settler claims of purchase.

Palestinian officials accused Netanyahu of undermining recently resumed peace talks with his decision to promote Jewish settlement in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city. Negotiations on the terms of a Palestinian state resumed in late July, after a five-year break.

“Netanyahu wants to foil the peace talks by continuing to build … on our land, and he is looking for a pretext to hold the Palestinians responsible for the failure of the talks,” Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said Tuesday.

Elsewhere in downtown Hebron, Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse several dozen Palestinian stone throwers. Such clashes are frequent in Hebron, particularly at times of heightened tension.

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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