Israeli soldiers and police yesterday forcibly evicted 15 Jewish settlers from a Palestinian home in Hebron they had occupied illegally a week ago, paving the way for a showdown between the hardline settler community and the government.
The eviction took settlers by surprise, as only hours earlier Israel's right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to persuade the army to delay the eviction until 25 April to give the settlers time to prove a legal claim to the house.
Mr Netanyahu's coalition government feared an eviction would trigger a confrontation between the army and settlers in Hebron, a Palestinian city in the West Bank that is home to about 500 of Israel's most militant settlers and more than 180,000 Palestinians. The city has long been a flashpoint for tensions between the two communities.
But to the fury of some right-wing politicians who supported the settlers' right to remain, the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, ordered the evacuation of the property, accusing settlers of "dictating facts on the ground".
The settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, had broken into the three-storey house last week and occupied an uninhabited floor. They insisted they had purchased the property legally from its Palestinian owners.
But the head of the local Palestinian police rejected their claim, saying more than 50 people jointly owned the house and only one of them sold his share to the settlers.
The Israeli Civil Administration challenged the settlers' move as provocative and ordered them to leave by 3 April because they failed to seek permission from the army before acquiring the property.
Mr Barak said his ministry would continue to examine the legality of the settlers' claim, but warned: "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."
Orik Srok, a Jewish resident of Hebron, told Army Radio: "What [Mr Barak] learned as a commando and elsewhere, he is inflicting on us. We seem to be the enemy."