JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister said Monday he wants to strengthen Jewish settlement in Hebron, the West Bank's largest Palestinian city, and hopes to see settlers move into a contested house there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's comments came a day after an Israeli soldier was killed in Hebron, where several hundred settlers live in enclaves among 170,000 Palestinians.
"Those who try to uproot us from the city of our forefathers achieve the opposite," Netanyahu said. "With one hand, we will continue to fight terror and hit the terrorists, and with the other hand we will strengthen the settlement."
Israelis and Palestinians resumed peace talks in July. The Palestinians have low expectations, expressing little hope of reaching a deal with the pro-settlement Netanyahu.
The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967. Since that war, more than half a million Israelis have settled in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu hasn't said where he would draw the borders of a Palestinian state or what the fate of the Hebron settlers would be.
Palestinians say settlers cannot stay in the city if a Palestinian state is established. "All the Israeli measures in Hebron are illegal and no one in the world recognizes them except for Netanyahu and his government," said Abbas Zaki, a Hebron leader of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement.
On Sunday, a gunman killed Sgt. Gabriel Koby, 20, a soldier securing the downtown area near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, revered by Muslims and Jews. Israeli soldiers carried his flag-wrapped coffin during a funeral at the military cemetery in Haifa.
The military said it is searching for the shooter, but ruled out friendly fire. There was no Palestinian claim of responsibility.
Netanyahu said Monday that he ordered "immediate action" to enable settlers to move into a contested house, known as Beit Hamahpela, in the downtown area.
Settlers briefly occupied the house last year, claiming they purchased it from a Palestinian, but the military evicted them at the time.
Maj. Guy Inbar, a military spokesman, said Israeli authorities have since determined the purchase was legal, but "there are a few legal problems" that need to be sorted out.
The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said the multi-family house is believed to have more than a dozen Palestinian owners who are expected to challenge the settlers in court.
Netanyahu's decision to promote another settler bridgehead in Hebron "is a slap in the face of the Palestinians and the Americans," said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now.
In other developments, the rights group Amnesty International said Palestinian security forces have repeatedly assaulted peaceful protesters and that the Abbas government is condoning the behavior.
The U. S. has spent millions of dollars training the security forces, in part to keep militant groups in check. Rights groups have accused the security forces of abuse, including mistreating detainees.
Sunjeev Bery of Amnesty said that "it is time for the United States to stop looking the other way."
Palestinian police spokesman Adnan Damiri said officers only use force when attacked or when protesters came too close to the Abbas compound.