Jewish Settlers Ruffle Feathers with Hebron Move

Some Jewish settlers have moved into a large building in the West Bank city of Hebron. They say they bought the building from its Palestinian owners. Israel's defense minister says the settlers didn't get permission to move in and will have to leave.

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Here's a story from the West Bank, where some hotly debated questions involve Jewish settlements among Palestinians. Jewish settlers in the West Bank recently moved to a large four-storey building in a Palestinian district of the divided city of Hebron. They say they bought the house from the Palestinian owners. Israel's defense minister says the settlers were not given permission to move in and will have to leave. Settlers say they'll go to court and they're confident they'll be able to stay. This new enclave has sparked renewed controversy in one of the tensest towns in the West Bank.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from Hebron.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Yeska Lezinger(ph), her husband and their five children left a spacious apartment in one of the Jewish enclaves down the road for one room in this unfinished building in the middle of one of Hebron's Arab neighborhoods. When they moved in five weeks ago, there was no water, no electricity and no bathrooms.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GRADSTEIN: Now, after round-the-clock renovation, there's a generator, shiny marble-floored bathrooms, a synagogue and a communal kitchen. There are still no windowpanes and the cellars have taped-up thick plastic to shut out some of the strong winds that blow here.

(Soundbite of wind blowing)

GRADSTEIN: Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israelis and Palestinians live in close proximity. It's also been frequently wracked by violence. Yeska Lezinger says she has no intention of leaving her new home, even of the Israel government orders her to.

Like many of the deeply religious Jews here, Yeska says settling the land of Israel is an important commandment in the Bible. She says she had no qualms about taking something from Hebron's Palestinians.

Ms. YESKA LEZINGER: You have to see how big this city is and one little street for the Jewish people. They could build wherever they want. They can buy houses wherever they want. And I don't feel sorry for them.

GRADSTEIN: The Palestinians here worry that the new settlers will only make their lives more difficult. Sikra Etjabery(ph), who runs a small grocery store just down the street, says some of the settlers stopped her 17-year-old son in the street and began taunting and beating him. Earlier this week, someone spray-painted a Jewish star and wrote death to the Arabs in black spray-paint on the doors of her store.

Ms. SIKRA ETJABERY (Store Owner): (Speaking foreign language)

GRADSTEIN: I really hope they leave. We don't want them here, she said. Why did they come here? They just make problems for us. The Lezingers and the other settlers in the newly acquired building have dubbed it the House of Peace, but Israeli media are calling it the House of Controversy. It's the first large building Jews have occupied in Hebron in two decades.

Gershom Gorenberg, who has written a book on the history of the settler movement, says they have always tried to establish facts on the ground in the occupied territories. Often they win, he says, because the Israeli government is too divided to act against them.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Journalist; Author): The government has seen settlers as acting in defiance of government policy, sometimes acting illegally. And at the same time, there's always been at least a few people inside of the cabinet who are in one way or another sympathetic with the settlers.

GRADSTEIN: So far, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said nothing in public about the house the Lezingers have occupied. Roni Bar-On, one of the prime minister's closest associates, has said they should be allowed to stay. But Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz says he's determined to make the settlers leave once they've exhausted their legal appeals.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Hebron.

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