JERUSALEM (AP) — For the second time in weeks, Israel's prime minister has sided with Jewish settlers trying to remain in West Bank homes they occupied illegally.
Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is dominated by hardline parties, was staunchly backed by political allies who want to cement Israel's hold on land the Palestinians claim for a future state. His critics accused him of trampling the rule of law.
On Monday, the military ordered settlers who occupied a house in the heart of the most volatile Palestinian city in the West Bank last week to leave the building by Tuesday afternoon because they had not received the required military approval to live there.
But hours later, Netanyahu asked Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the ultimate authority in the West Bank, to let the settlers stay while they "make their legal case," the prime minister's spokesman Mark Regev said.
Regev did not explain why Netanyahu sought the delay, even though the settlers acknowledge they deliberately disregarded a requirement to obtain military approval for property purchases in the West Bank. Nor would he say how Barak replied.
Barak has not signaled his intentions.
Members of Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party applauded the Israeli leader's move.
Cabinet Minister Limor Livnat told Israel Radio that Barak is "pursuing a policy of not letting Jews live in Judea and Samaria," the biblical name for the West Bank. Lawmaker Zeev Elkin, in an interview with Army Radio, accused Barak, who heads a small centrist party of trying to curry favor with dovish voters.
Netanyahu's critics were equally vocal.
Dovish lawmaker Zehava Gal-On said the move proved Netanyahu does not want to make peace with the Palestinians, who see the West Bank as core of a future state and see all settlement there as undermining their statehood aspirations. The international community backs the Palestinian position.
Gal-On urged Barak to evacuate the settlers by Tuesday afternoon as originally ordered. "That is the test of the rule of law," Gal-On, head of the Meretz Party, told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu's intercession came just weeks after his government tried to bypass an Israeli Supreme Court order to dismantle a large West Bank settler enclave by March 31. The enclave, Migron, was built without government authorization on privately held Palestinian land, in violation of Israeli law.
The court rejected the government's request to delay Migron's evacuation until November 2015, saying that doing so would be tantamount to flouting the rule of law. It did, however, grant a four-month delay until Aug. 1. Netanyahu has said he will respect the court decision.
Migron settlers, who zealously believe they have a God-given right to the West Bank, have said they will not go quietly.
The eviction order for the Hebron house similarly threatened to touch off a violent confrontation between security forces and a militant settler community. The biblical city is home to the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of both Jews and Muslims, and the only place where Jews live in the heart of a West Bank city. It has been a focus of Israeli-Arab violence for decades.
Hebron settlers and their supporters have violently resisted similar eviction orders, retaliating with attacks against Palestinians.
Israeli media speculated Monday that Netanyahu was eager to avoid the specter of Jewish soldiers and settlers clashing on the eve of the weeklong Passover holiday, which begins Friday night.
It was on the Passover holiday 44 years ago that Jews first resettled Hebron after Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. Palestinians claim all three areas, including Gaza, which is now ruled by Palestinian Hamas militants, for a future state.
About 850 settlers now live in Hebron in heavily guarded enclaves among 180,000 Palestinians. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers enforce a rigid separation between the two sides.
Settlers say they bought the house they occupied last week from a Palestinian property owner, but the military said it had not yet ascertained whether the purchase was legitimate. That process could take days or weeks, military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said. The mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, told Army Radio that the purchase documents were fraudulent, and that the seller was not acting on behalf of the building's owner.
The Jews in Hebron are just a small fraction of the half a million settlers who have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since Israel captured those territories.