Around 100 Israeli settlers forcibly took over a Palestinian home in the Old City of Hebron, raising tensions in the city amid widespread anger over Israeli-imposed restrictions on entry to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The settlers raided the Abu Rajabs’ family home, located in the southern occupied West Bank, on Wednesday.
Activists caught the moment on video and circulated the footage on social media.
Issa Amro, director of the Hebron-based Youth Against Settlements activist group, said the settlers began moving their furniture in on Thursday, “right in front of the [Israeli] police and the army”.
The Human Rights Defenders NGO posted a video on Facebook showing soldiers shoving and roughing up members of the Abu Rajab family as hundreds of settlers applauded.
“[The Abu Rajab family has] been attacked by soldiers, police and settlers, and they were very intimidated,” Amro told Al Jazeera, explaining that the takeover comes after a week of settler attacks in the city.
“Yesterday, the settlers also attacked a Palestinian child who was walking past, and they threw stones at a family,” Amro recalled. “This is very common in Hebron.”
Around 700 Jewish Israelis live in settlements in the heart of Hebron, where they are guarded by thousands of Israeli soldiers and police.
Around 37,000 Palestinians live in the same area and endure dozens of military checkpoints that severely limit their freedom of movement.
The city is divided into three spheres of control – including full Palestinian Authority (PA) administration, joint administration between Israeli military forces and PA police, and full Israeli control.
“Settlers are changing the names of the streets and changing the names of the neighbourhoods, which is an obvious violation of the agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” Amro added.
Netanyahu intervenes for settlers
The home – known to settlers as Beit HaMachpela – has been the subject of a long-standing legal case, with settlers claiming that they legally purchased the property.
The Abu Rajab family rejects that claim, and Israel’s civil administration has said the settlers have been unable to provide proof of that purchase.
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman to allow the settlers to remain in the Abu Rajab family home, the Times of Israel reported, citing unnamed sources.
A slew of far-right and nationalist Israeli politicians have publicly backed the settlers and called on the government to allow them to stay in the occupied home indefinitely.
“The entry into the home is another step in strengthening the natural connection of the Jewish people to its land. In the last few days in which Jerusalem has been under incessant incitement, I am glad that the people of Israel continue to establish themselves in the City of the Patriarchs,” said Uri Ariel, Israel’s agriculture minister, according to the local Arutz Sheva news site.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, called on the prime minister and the defence minister to “work to keep them in the house forever”.
Peace Now, an anti-settlement watchdog, called on the Israeli government to evict the settlers from the home.
“We demand that the government orders the immediate evacuation of the settlers who invaded Beit HaMachpela,” the group said in a statement.
“After their claims of ownership had been denied, the settlers have decided to take the law into their own hands and establish an illegal settlement that might ignite the region.”
Earlier this month, the United Nations’ cultural arm, UNESCO, declared Hebron’s Old City as a protected heritage site.
Hebron is home to more than 200,000 Palestinians.
The Old City is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews.
More than 500,000 Israeli settlers live in Jewish-only colonies, which are deemed illegal by international law, throughout occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
Last month, Israel began work on the first new settlement in the West Bank in 25 years to provide residences for settlers who were expelled from the Amona outpost – a settlement not approved by Israeli authorities – in February.
Recent weeks have seen a sharp surge in violence, with Palestinians holding daily mass protests against Israel’s crackdown on entry to al-Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest site for Muslims – in occupied East Jerusalem.
The unrest started when three Palestinian citizens of Israel opened fire on Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City on July 14, killing two officers. Israeli forces shot dead the three men in the subsequent shoot-out.
Israel installed metal detectors, security cameras and turnstiles at the entry to al-Mosque Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount.
Throughout the two weeks of demonstrations that followed, Israeli forces and settlers killed five Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency.
Under increasing pressure as protests spread, Israel removed the metal detectors overnight on Wednesday. On Thursday, the cameras and turnstiles were also removed.