JERUSALEM — The Israeli military on Monday ordered a group of settlers to evacuate a contested house in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, less than a week after they moved into the property.
"After examining all the evidence that was handed over and after considering all the circumstances of the incident, it was decided to return to the situation which existed before," said the military order, which was sent to the lawyer representing the settlers.
"In other words: the state that existed before the settlers entered the house."
The order, which gives the settlers until 1200 GMT on April 3 to evacuate the building of their own free will, said the decision was based on "considerations of public order."
"If you do not comply, the authorities will take action to immediately clear the structure," it said.
However, a senior government official told AFP that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had written a letter to Defence Minister Ehud Barak asking that the settlers be given "a supplementary postponement to comply with this decision."
Last week, dozens of Israeli settlers moved into the second floor of the building, which they dubbed Beit Machpelah, in an overnight operation on March 28.
They said the property had been legally purchased, but relatives of the Palestinian owners, who live on the first floor, dispute the claim.
Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Civil Administration which manages all civilian affairs in parts of the West Bank under full Israeli military and security control, said all such purchases need official approval -- which they did not obtain.
"The purchase of a building by an Israeli from a Palestinian needs to be approved by the Civil Administration," he told AFP.
"Beit Machpelah did not request such permits, which is illegal, and for this reason they were asked to vacate the premises by tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon."
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 (or the Machpelah Cave) to Jews and the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims.
David Wilder, spokesman for the Israeli settler community in Hebron, slammed the evacuation order as a "political decision."
"The only reason written on the order is 'breach of public order' although we have documents (proving) that the house is ours," he told AFP.
"There are people who do not want Jews in Hebron. We intend to do everything to bring about the cancellation of the order."
Zeev Elkin and Arieh Eladad, two ultra-nationalist MPs, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "immediately cancel the outrageous evacuation order that was issued against the House of the Patriarchs in Hebron."
"It cannot be that (maintaining) 'public order' in the city of our forefathers means preventing Jews from living opposite the Tomb of the Patriarchs," they said in a statement, calling on Netanyahu's government to instead throw its support behind the Jewish community in Hebron.
Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, home to some 170,000 Palestinian residents, but also a core of around 600 Israeli hardcore 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/Cave of the Patriarchs site.