HEBRON, Israel – Hundreds of Israeli forces continued a standoff here today with 11 families living in a Jewish-owned marketplace in the world’s oldest Jewish city as negotiations failed and Israel’s acting prime minister ordered the army to prepare the enforcement of evictions.

The Israeli Defense Forces declared Hebron a closed military zone, saying the move was a bid to stem the flow of protesters to the area ahead of the eviction of the families, who are living in a converted marketplace at the entrance to the Jewish section of the city.

IDF soldiers, snipers and police took over several buildings that surround the marketplace and went house-to-house today arresting Jewish protesters, including some hiding in closets and attics. The military announced all Jewish nonresidents of Hebron needed to depart the city by yesterday morning.

Israeli forces stationed across from Hebron market (Photo: WND)

Soldiers set up makeshift checkpoints throughout Jewish Hebron, only allowing entry to card-carrying residents.

In protest, dozens of Hebron residents today departed the checkpoints and tried to reenter the city while refusing to produce their ID cards. Several residents, including minors, were arrested.

At a cabinet meeting today, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the IDF to prepare a plan to immediate evacuate the Hebron market if occupants refuse to leave voluntarily.

The market, now converted to small, two-story apartments, was built in 1929 after Arab riots temporarily forced Jews from the area. For a period of over 30 years, a sign was posted on the market boasting in Arabic that the structure was built on stolen Jewish property.

Arab merchants set up shop at the market but were asked to leave by the IDF after a series of clashes broke out in the mid-1990s. Then in 2001, Jewish families took up occupancy to strengthen Jewish ties to the area following the murder, yards away from the market, of an infant by a Palestinian sniper.

The market, integrated within the Hebron Jewish community, is directly adjacent to several apartments and Jewish municipal buildings. It is not located in an Arab neighborhood.

Even though the original owners of the property recently signed over the market to Hebron’s Jewish community and Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the structure was Jewish-owned, the government considers the current occupancy of the marketplace illegal since it says the families living inside did not negotiate their arrival with the IDF.

In a ruling that declared the market is Jewish property, the Supreme Court stated current Jewish occupants needed to be evicted in order that “sinners not go unpunished” for moving in allegedly without military permission.

Hebron residents believe the evacuation is imminent. Families had until yesterday to leave on their own accord or face forcible removal, according to the eviction notices obtained by WND. The notices were worded similarly to eviction documents distributed to Jews living in the Gaza Strip just before their withdrawal from the area last year.

As WND first reported, Hebron leaders have been trying to broker a deal with military commanders that would allow the occupants to remain in the structure.

Today IDF Central Command Yair Naveh told the media the army offered marketplace occupants a deal in which they would voluntarily depart and coordinate their return with the government, but he said Hebron leaders refused the proposal.

“[I told them to] evacuate the market and we will make a commitment to you that, within a few months, the stores will return to your hands,” Naveh told the media.

Hebron spokesman David Wilder told WND area leaders refused the deal because “once a tenant leaves a property there are all sorts of laws that go into effect. How can we trust the residents will be able to return? Or that the army won’t destroy the market?”

Most of the 11 families told WND they plan to resist any eviction attempts.

“I am not leaving,” marketplace resident Miriam Grubowski told WND. “This isn’t just about a market, it’s about our country. After [the evacuation this past summer of the Gaza Strip] we see the government has the capacity to throw Jews from their homes. If they can evacuate us here and now, they can evacuate the rest of Hebron, the [entire West Bank] and even Jerusalem.”

Wilder, whose daughter and son-in-law live in the marketplace, said he expects strong resistance against the soldiers.

“We will put up a fight. We are not going to greet the soldiers with songs like you saw in Gush Katif,” he said, referring to Gaza’s former slate of Jewish communities.

Many of the families are armed, but, Wilder said, “there are no plans whatsoever on the part of the residents to use weapons. This is not what we’re about. Still, there will be strong resistance.”

Wilder called the arrival of a massive number of troops to evict 11 families living in a structure within the Hebron Jewish community “a show of force to demonstrate this area [and all of the West Bank] is on the chopping block and might be given up by Israel. This is not about the market itself.”

Some Israeli commentators have been questioning the timing of the evacuation orders, which come as Olmert begins to launch his Kadima Party’s political campaign after official installation earlier this week as party chairman. The commentators say Olmert will need to demonstrate he is capable of carrying out the policies of Kadima in absence of its founder, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains comatose in a Jerusalem hospital.

Multiple Kadima members have stated the new party is looking to change Israel’s borders.

Olmert has expressed approval of West Bank withdrawals and has made statements to reporters about the possibility of vacating certain peripheral areas of Jerusalem.

Also, Olmert, who previously served as mayor of Jerusalem, was the first Sharon deputy to go public with the Gaza-withdrawal plan.

Jews lived in Hebron – home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, believed to be the resting place of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs – almost continuously for over 2,500 years. There are accounts of the trials of the city’s Jewish community throughout the Byzantine, Arab, Mameluke and Ottoman periods.

In 1929, as a result of an Arab pogrom in which 67 Jews were murdered, the entire Jewish community fled the city, with Hebron becoming temporarily devoid of Jews.

The Jews re-established their presence in Hebron after the West Bank was recaptured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, with some prime ministers allowing Jewish construction in the city, and others calling it off.

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