Tension is running high in the volatile West Bank town of Hebron after Israeli settlers took over a building. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, Palestinians and Israeli human rights groups describe the move as a provocation.
Dozens of Jewish settlers escorted by Israeli security forces moved into a four story building under disputed ownership in the biblical town of Hebron. The settlers say they purchased the building legally for $700,000, but the Palestinian owner denies that he sold it.
The building is located near the Tomb of the Patriarchs which is holy to Muslims and Jews. Abraham, the common ancestor of Jews and Arabs is buried there, along with the Jewish patriarchs Isaac and Jacob.
About 500 settlers live among 160,000 Palestinians in Hebron, and settlers have sought to increase the Jewish presence by buying Arab property. David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, says the building has plenty of room.
"It will allow a lot of people that have been waiting to get into Hebron a chance to finally live here," Wilder says.
Palestinians charge that moving Jews into an Arab neighborhood is a provocation. But in an Israel Radio interview, Wilder said the issue goes way beyond one neighborhood.
"The State of Israel is surrounded by about a half a billion Arabs that don't want us here. The city of Hebron is surrounded by quite a number of Arabs that don't want us here as are many other communities in the State of Israel," Wilder says. "This is our land, and just as a person should be able to purchase property anywhere he wants, why is it a provocation for a Jew to buy land in the Land of Israel? This is our home."
But Sarit Michaelli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says that in order to protect the settlers, the army will impose harsh measures on Palestinian residents of Hebron.
"The security strategy is creating buffer zones, areas that are forbidden for Palestinians to walk in sometimes, certainly drive in and open their shops in," Michaelli says. "And we've seen that this policy has made large areas of the Old City of Hebron into a ghost town."
Israeli authorities are examining documents to see if the building was purchased legally. If so, officials say the settlers will be allowed to stay.