Israeli police on Wednesday evicted Jewish settlers from a building they said they had bought from a Palestinian in the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron, a frequent flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The presence of the 15 settlers in the two-storey structure had caused divisions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mainly right-wing cabinet, and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, leader of a centrist party, has pushed for eviction.
Netanyahu had asked Barak to give the settlers more time to allow them to present legal evidence of their ownership claim, which has been disputed by Palestinian authorities.
But defence officials said settlers had moved into a particularly sensitive area of the occupied West Bank without the approval of Israeli security authorities. A statement issued by Barak's office hours before the eviction said the government had a duty to uphold the rule of law.
Despite the evictions, Netanyahu said he intended to strengthen Jewish settlement in the West Bank and that these plans included expanding Hebron's Jewish enclave, but that this had to be done in accordance with the law.
Though politically strong, Netanyahu has faced questions from within his own Likud party and from other right-wing coalition partners about his commitment to the settlers, many of whom see themselves as exercising a Jewish birthright to biblical land.
In an announcement issued just minutes before the settlers were removed from the building, Netanyahu said he would soon ask the government to grant formal status to three West Bank settler outposts built more than a decade ago without state permission.
Netanyahu's move to approve those outposts retroactively raised speculation he was trying to mollify settler leaders angered by the Hebron eviction.
In Hebron, the settlers had sought to expand a settlement of some 500 Israeli families in the heart of a biblical city home to about 250,000 Palestinians where enmity between the two groups runs high.
About 500,000 Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas which, along with the Gaza Strip, were captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Most world powers deem the Jewish settlements illegal and Palestinians fear their presence will deny them a viable state. Israel disputes this and has vowed to keep major settlement blocs under any eventual peace accord with the Palestinians.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Andrew Osborn)