Responding to soldier killings, Netanyahu allows Jewish families to live in Hebron house


An elderly Palestinian man walks in Hebron, the West Bank city where an Israeli soldier was fatally shot by a Palestinian sniper. Israeli prime minister has given the go-ahead for Jewish settlers to re-occupy a contested West Bank building. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an order late Sunday allowing Jewish families to move into a contested house in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron, the West Bank city where an Israeli soldier was fatally shot by a Palestinian sniper hours earlier.

The controversial order, following the death of the solider in Hebron and the killing Friday of an unarmed air force sergeant who police say was lured to a West Bank village, represented the latest blow to nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace talks being brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.

On Monday, tourism minister Uzi Landau told Army Radio that Israel should freeze its participation in the talks until the Palestinian Authority condemns the soldier killings. But Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki said the slayings were not a reason to abandon the peace process, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported.

Netanyahu did not directly address the talks in a statement Sunday night. But he said Israel will continue to battle against militants who would do it harm, including by expanding the Jewish presence in Hebron — believed to be the burial place of the biblical Abraham, a patriarch to both faiths, as well as Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca — and other parts of the West Bank.

“Those who try to uproot us from the City of the Patriarchs will achieve the opposite,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to fight terrorism and strike at terrorists on the one hand and strengthen settlement with the other.”

In a letter delivered Monday night, seven government ministers called on Netanyahu to rethink releasing Palestinian prisoners as part of the current U.S.-led peace talks.

Spearheaded by Economy and Commerce Minister Naftali Bennett, the letter was also signed by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau, Senior Citizens’ Affairs Minister Uri Orbach, and Minister of Immigration and Absorption Sofa Landver.

The order issued Sunday night applies to the house known as Beit Hamachpela, which was purchased by members of Hebron’s Jewish community in 2012. The purchase was validated after a court hearing this year, but the families were waiting for a final approval from government authorities before moving in.

They would be the first Israeli citizens in the Palestinian part of the city’s ancient quarter. The house is just yards from the holy site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque. The book of Genesis describes Abraham purchasing the site in order to bury his wife Sarah after her death.

The soldier killed Sunday was 1st Sgt. Gal (Gabriel) Koby, 20, from Tirat Carmel, near the northern Israeli city of Haifa. Koby was manning a military post that guards a Jewish settlement in Hebron’s ancient quarter, adjacent to the burial site. The site is a popular pilgrimage destination for Jews during the Sukkot holiday, which started Wednesday evening and continues this week.

The Jewish settlement in Hebron, like all such settlements in the West Bank, is considered by Palestinians and much of the world to be illegal under international law; the one in Hebron has been especially volatile.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate reaction to Netanyahu’s order, although in the past it has characterized such moves by Israel as not helpful to the peace process.

In a statement Sunday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf condemned the killings of both Koby and Air Force Sgt. Tomer Hazan, saying: “Such violence and terror are unacceptable, and undermine efforts to establish the positive atmosphere the parties need to progress in peace negotiations.”

The European Union issued its own statement condemning Koby’s killing “in the strongest terms” and calling for “maximum restraint” by all parties so that the peace process can continue.

Hazan, 20, was slain on Friday, allegedly by Nadal Amar, a 42-year-old Palestinian from the village of Beit Amin. Israel’s security agency said Amar had worked at a restaurant with Hazan, and admitted killing him and dumping his body in a well in hopes of trading the corpse for the release of his brother, Nur al-Din Amar, who has been imprisoned in Israel since 2003 for his involvement in the planning of several attacks.

Senior Israeli leaders in the coalition government said the killing of the two soldiers within 48 hours not only increased tensions but also signaled that Israel does not have a partner for peace. Some Israeli lawmakers said no more Palestinian prisoners should be released, one of the preconditions agreed to by Israel to get negotiations with the West Bank government going.

Strong reactions

“Twenty years after the Oslo Accords, our partner has not changed,” declared Israeli Minister of Economy and Commerce Naftali Bennett on his Facebook page Saturday night, after details of the first slaying emerged. “We cannot make peace with terrorists who throw the bodies of soldiers into pits; we must fight them without mercy.”

The Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed at the White House 20 years ago this month. The accords called for limited Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from those areas.

Instead of attempting to make peace, Bennett wrote, he would focus on trying to “strengthen the security forces and the Shin Bet,” the Israeli security service, to prevent any further incidents.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told Christian lawmakers at an Israeli Allies Foundation conference Sunday, “We will bury a soldier who was murdered by a Palestinian so his body could be traded and a terrorist could be released,” according to an account in the Jerusalem Post.

Yaalon called the negotiations brokered by Kerry “another political process our allies think will bring peace.”

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, who wrote an op-ed published Friday in the New York Times that called for Israel to annul the Oslo Accords, accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of inciting violence.

“Incitement of the Palestinian leadership continues 20 years after Oslo,” he said.

“The murder of soldier Tomer Hazan is a terrible reminder of what Israel faces every day dealing with murderous animal-like terrorists,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid posted on Facebook, adding that Israel could rely only on itself for security.

Killing a co-worker

According to an Israeli army spokeswoman, Lt. Libby Weiss, Amar and Hazan had worked together at a restaurant in the Israeli coastal town of Bat Yam.

On Friday morning, Amar invited Hazan to travel with him to his home town of Beit Amin. Later Friday, Shin Bet received word that Hazan had not been in touch with his family.

Intelligence information led to Amar, and then to the body, Weiss said.

Amar’s distraught father told reporters that his son should be shot for the crime, but he begged for other family members to be released.

On Saturday night and Sunday, protesters gathered outside the Tzachi Meats restaurant in Bat Yam, where Amar and Hazan had worked together, according to TV news reports. The protesters chanted “Death to Arabs” and called for the town, which sits just south of Tel Aviv, to be Jewish-only.

Amar’s wife and daughters, interviewed by the Israeli news outlet Ynet, said they were surprised by his actions and described him as a “quiet, civilized and understanding person.” Amar’s wife said that he had not shared his plans with her and that they had not lived together as a family for two years.

Last month, Israeli security forces fatally shot three Palestinians during a clash at a refugee camp south of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. Israeli officials said protesters were throwing deadly objects at soldiers; Palestinian Authority leaders said that the Israeli military provoked the attack by staging a raid during daylight hours and that it could derail the peace talks.

Ruth Eglash is a reporter for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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