Defense Minister Amir Peretz plans to go ahead with the evacuation of settlers from the controversial Hebron building they have occupied, even if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opposes the move, senior defense officials told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday. "The decision to evacuate the home is up to the defense minister and he plans to utilize his authority," one official said, adding that the only legal way to stop the evacuation was for the cabinet to pass a resolution against the move. Interior Minister Roni Bar-On has already requested a cabinet meeting on the matter, but the Prime Minister's Office said no such date had been set. Sources close to Olmert said that the prime minister was looking to delay an evacuation.
Analysis: Peretz may be evicted before the settlers
In a meeting on Tuesday evening, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz told Peretz that he could not immediately evacuate the settlers from the four-story, 3,500-square meter stone building which overlooks the main road linking the settlement of Kiryat Arba with the Cave of the Patriarchs.
The settlers moved into the building on March 19. They claimed they purchased it for $700,000 from the Palestinian owner Faiz Rajabi, who has rejected that claim.
The issue of ownership is still under investigation, but Peretz has said that his concern is one of policy and procedure and not the sale's legality. Even if the sale is determined to be legal, Peretz has said that he would remove the settlers because they did not obtain permission to occupy the structure.
He had sought to evict them as squatters, but was blocked by Mazuz. The attorney-general told Peretz he could not classify the settlers as squatters because it was not clear who owned the building. However, he added that the occupation of the house, no matter who owned it, was illegal as long as the defense minister had not approved it.
This, he explained, was in accordance with Military Order No. 1586, which empowers the head of the civil administration to rule that the settlers have made illegal use of the property and order them to evacuate it if the defense minister decides to reject the occupation of the property.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh explained that according to Civil Administration Order 25, the occupation or transfer of all homes in the West Bank needed to be coordinated with the civil administration. Otherwise such moves were deemed illegal, he said.
The legal basis for the decision to evacuate the home is also based on a government decision from 1980 when Prime Minister Menachem Begin's cabinet decided that the government was the only body allowed to permit the expansion of the Jewish community of Hebron. Ultimately, the government would have the final say in this case as well.
Both Sneh and Mazuz, however, said the security forces may not evacuate the occupants immediately. The settlers are entitled to a hearing and, if the hearing goes against them, may appeal in court against the decision.
"We cannot accept a situation where buying a house or a land deal determines the settlement map," Peretz said Wednesday. "The settlement map must be determined by government policy and therefore we intend to act in all legal ways to evacuate the building in Hebron."
According to Sneh, ownership of the building - located in an area populated by Palestinians outside the Jewish community - substantively increased the Jewish presence in Hebron.
"This is an issue with major diplomatic and political ramifications," Sneh said, adding that it needed to be taken seriously since Hebron was one of the most "volatile" cities in the West Bank.
But MK Otniel Schneller, however, has said that he believed the presence of the settlers in that building, strategically situated along the only access road to the Cave of the Patriarchs, was in keeping with government policy to maintain the ancient historic site.
Late Wednesday afternoon the civil administration hung eviction orders on the building which gave the settlers 15 days to provide documentation that supports their presence at the site.
David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, said that he did not believe that the notice was an eviction order in the sense that it did not state that security forces would take them out of the building within 15 days, but rather it had set a timetable for an appeal.
Wilder added that he did not believe the settlers would be evicted, given that it was his understanding that the cabinet would not uphold such a move. He added that the settlers were confident of their claim to the structure.
Peretz won't be in office long enough to oversee an eviction process, said Wilder. He added that he was convinced that Peretz would be felled either by a loss in the Labor leadership primaries in May or that he would be forced out of office by the results of the Winograd Committee, which is investigating Peretz's decisions during the Second Lebanon War.
He spoke over the sound of the drilling that could be heard throughout the structure on Wednesday, which is now home to 15 families and some 40 young adults.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.