Israeli troops evicted right-wing members of parliament from a house in the Arab section of Hebron on the occupied West Bank early today, ending an illegal sit-in.
The Knesset members left the building without resistance after being handed an eviction order at 3:30 a.m. by the Army central command, but they said they would return to the house or another in the section. The protesters also said they would appeal the order to the High Court of Justice.
One of the demonstators, Knesset member Geula Cohen of the Tehyia Party, said, "This is a sad day for our country and a happy day for our enemies . . . . They evacuated us from the house, but not from the drive to settle Hebron.
The rundown, four-room house in Hebron's old Arab quarter has become the focus of a campaign by the right wing in the Knesset -- Israel's parliament -- to revive Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab cities and, at the same time, express opposition to peace negotiations between the government and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that includes supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had said the five Knesset members will not be permitted to continue their sit-in at the house, visited Hebron yesterday and spoke with three legislators from the conservative Tehiya Party for more than an hour but failed to persuade them to leave.
The three, Cohen, Eliezer Waldman and Gershon Shafat, said Rabin had appealed to their consciences not to abuse their parliamentary immunity from arrest and to end their four-day-old demonstration.
"We told him that our Zionist consciences demand of us to remain here," Waldman said. Rabin said Sunday night that he wanted to avoid forcibly evicting them because it would be "very undignified for the state of Israel."
After meeting with the squatters at the Hebron military governor's headquarters, Rabin briefly visited the formerly Arab-owned house, bought by the Organization for Resettlement of Jews in Hebron through an Arab middleman.
About 28 Jewish families are living in Hebron now, but virtually all of them are in the old Jewish quarter and not in the densely populated Arab casbah, a warren of narrow alleys in which there have been frequent attacks on Jewish shoppers.
Aharon Nahmias, deputy speaker of the Knesset and a member of Prime Minister Shimon Peres' Labor Party, also visited the squatters yesterday and asked them not to use their parliamentary immunity.
Peres, appearing before the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, had accused the protesters of "making light of the law" under immunity, according to the state radio. Members of the "national unity" coalition Cabinet were split almost evenly along partisan lines over whether settlement in the exclusively Arab section of Hebron should continue to be permitted.
Cabinet minister Moshe Arens, in a radio interview, said, "I definitely justify purchasing of houses and land, . . . everywhere in Judea and Samaria -- everywhere in Hebron. I don't see anything wrong with this." Judea and Samaria are the biblical names for the West Bank.
While neither side is openly advocating dissolution of the coalition government, some Labor Party legislators said the dispute could reach that stage if the Likud continues to side with the Tehiya Party on the settlement issue.