Israel allows settlers back into contested West Bank home

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon on Sunday approved the return of Jewish settlers to a contested house in the West Bank city of Hebron, his office said.

The Supreme Court ruled last month that settlers were the lawful owners of the building in the heart of the occupied Palestinian city, ending a legal dispute lasting nearly seven years.

"Following the court decision... Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon today (Sunday) approved habitation of the house," his office said in a statement.

It added that the area military instructor had been told to allow "a limited number of families to the house".

The Peace Now settlement watchdog condemned what it called a "sad decision from the ministry of defence to approve and support the most radical rightwing settlers and approve them a new settlement in Hebron".

The ministry "and the government showed again that they have no interest in the two-state solution and its negotiation", its spokesman Lior Amihai told AFP, referring to United States-sponsored negotiations aimed at a two-state peace settlement.

The Rajabis, a Palestinian family, has for years said its four-storey building had been taken over fraudulently by Israeli settlers.

A lower court in 2012 accepted their claim, ruling that the settlers' assertion that they had legally purchased the property "does not hold water".

The Supreme Court overturned that judgment on appeal.

The building is near a contested holy site known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque and to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs in a tightly controlled Israeli enclave where many streets are off-limits to Palestinian cars.

The settlers were evacuated in 2008, and the Supreme Court ruling said they would not be allowed to move back in without Defence Ministry approval.

The flashpoint city of Hebron, home to nearly 200,000 Palestinians, also comprises some 80 settler homes in the centre of town for about 700 Jews who live under Israeli army protection.