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Netanyahu affirms support for 'courageous' West Bank settlers

Israeli prime minister says government 'supports settlement at any time' after settlers had occupied and been evicted from homes in Hebron
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) leads the weekly cabinet meeting on 24 January 2016 at his office in Jerusalem (AFP)

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, on Sunday affirmed his support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank, following the actions of a large settler group in Hebron last week.

On Thursday, as many as 80 settlers took over two Palestinian homes in the heart of the old city of Hebron, a flashpoint for Palestinian protests.

The old city has a population of 30,000 Palestinians and a few hundred Jewish settlers, the latter heavily protected by the Israeli army.

Checkpoints are rife in the old city, with frequent road closures heavily affecting the movement and economic industry of the Palestinians.

The two homes are near the Ibrahimi Mosque, known to the settlers as the Cave of the Patriarchs, another contentious site.

On Friday, Israeli security forces evicted the settlers from the homes after their presence sparked protests with Palestinians.

Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defence minister, had said the Jewish "squatters" were evicted because they had not followed legal procedures.

But at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu expressed his full support for settlements, describing the settlers' actions in Hebron as a "courageous stand".

"The government supports settlement at any time, especially now when it is under terrorist assault and is taking a courageous and determined stand in the face of terrorist attacks," Netanyahu said.

“The process of checking is starting today,” he continued. “We will do it as quickly as possible. If, in any case, it is not completed within a week, I will see to it that the cabinet receives a status report.

"The moment that the purchase process is authorised, we will allow the population of the two houses in Hebron."

According to Israeli daily Ynet, the government decided to form a ministerial committee on settlements, which will strip the defence minister of his authority to evacuate homes in the territories.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts since they occupy land Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Netanyahu, who heads a coalition with only a one-seat majority in parliament, faces pressure from his government, especially from the religious nationalists in his cabinet. Criticising the evictions, three right-wing members of Netanyahu's coalition had threatened to not vote with the government over the issue.

Clashes and protests have regularly broken out in Hebron. A large number of the Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that began in October have also occurred in and around the city.

Since October, more than 150 Palestinians, the majority alleged attackers, have been killed by the Israeli army and security forces.

In the same time period, 24 Israelis were killed.

A poll conducted by Israel Channel 2 found that 68 percent of Israelis are unhappy with the prime minister's way of dealing with the Palestinian attacks.