Israeli forces have evicted a group of settlers from a disputed house in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, a day after they were ordered to leave the property, police said.
“Police have completed the evacuation of the house in Hebron,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Wednesday, indicating 15 people had been escorted off the premises, among them women and children.
No-one was injured in the operation which began shortly after 1:00pm (1000 GMT), and involved police, border police and troops, he said, adding that the eviction was the result of a “government decision”.
Six families of Jewish settlers moved into the property a week ago, claiming they had legally purchased one floor of the building from its Palestinian owners.
But the Israeli defence ministry said they had not obtained the necessary military permits for the purchase and on Monday ordered them to leave the premises within 24 hours.
An AFP news agency correspondent at the scene said two buses of Israeli police dressed in black pulled up, and the officers fanned out around the house before removing the residents, most of whom were women and children.
One of the settlers inside the house also confirmed that they were being taken out of the property. “They are evacuating us now,” he told AFP before hanging up the phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The surprise move came just hours after a top-level meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and two other ministers, at which they decided to push ahead with the eviction.
Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry, reporting from Jerusalem, said many observers saw a link between the timing of the eviction and a decision taken by the Israeli government on Tuesday to hold on to other Palestinian areas in the West Bank.
“The prime minister announced yesterday that he was going to hold on to three other West Bank areas, by turning them over to the attorney general and make the legal under Israel law, knowing that he was going to have to go through today with this eviction.”
In a statement released shortly after the operation, Barak said his ministry would continue to examine the legal aspects of the property deal, but insisted the government would not tolerate people “imposing or dictating facts on the ground”.
“Israel police today cleared out the settlers who entered the Machpela house in Hebron,” he said in a statement released by his office, indicating that he personally had approved the operation.
“It is not possible to allow a situation where actions are taken contrary to the law with the intention of imposing or dictating facts on the ground to the government.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Israeli public radio had said the ministers had decided to grant those living inside the house a three-week extension, in what appeared to be an attempt to lull the settlers into a false sense of security and thereby avoiding any major confrontations.
The move sparked an angry response from Hebron’s settler community, with one woman accusing Barak of “playing tricks” on them and “treating them like the enemy”.
“What he [Barak] learned as a commando and elsewhere, he is inflicting on us. We seem to be the enemy,” Orik Srok told army radio. “If this is a government decision then the government has completely lost its way.”
Yariv Openheimer, the head of Peace Now, which promotes Israeli-Palestinian peace, welcomed the move.
“I’m pleased that, at least in this case, they didn’t go along with the settlers, who are really the most extreme that you can find today in the territories,” he told the radio.
The six families moved into the second-floor property in Hebron’s Old City on March 28.
But on Monday, Israel’s civil administration, the defence ministry unit which manages civilian affairs in parts of the occupied West Bank under full Israeli control, ordered them to leave, saying they had failed to obtain the required approval for the purchase.
The civil administration ordered the families to provide all the necessary legal proof by 3:00pm on Tuesday or face eviction, but the deadline came and went without them complying.
A closed military zone was put in place around the house, which is near the contested religious site known as the Cave of the Patriarchs to Jews and the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims.
Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, home to about 190,000 Palestinian residents, but also a core of about 600 Israeli conservative settlers who live in the heart of the city protected by a large Israeli military presence.
The Old City has become a flashpoint for confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.
In 1994, a settler from the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement gunned down 29 Palestinians as they prayed at the contested Ibrahimi Mosque site.