Israel's occupation government has created a new authority to provide municipal services to illegal Jewish settlers in Hebron, prompting accusations that the state is trying to annex part of the occupied West Bank.
According to AFP, a military order signed last week establishes a "municipal services administration" for the illegal settlers, a move which violates the 20 year-old Hebron Protocol, a 1997 treaty signed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in office and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The treaty grants the Palestinian Authority (PA) full control over most of Hebron and the whole city's administrative services.
The new order deepens Israeli control and will provide the several hundred ultranationalist settlers with services that Israel alleges the PA does not provide. Others argue that the move will cause further division in a city that regularly witnesses high tension between Israelis and Palestinians.
The Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now has condemned the announcement: "The military order formalises the system of apartheid in the city and could potentially lead to new projects and budget transfers to the Hebron settlers."
Hebron, the West Bank's most populous city, is already under military occupation, a system that places serious restrictions on daily life for more than 200,000 Palestinian residents. It is also home to extensive illegal settler activity, including the demolition of Palestinian homes, even those funded by the European Union, which the occupation authorities claim do not have the necessary building permits.
The West Bank has been under Israeli occupation since the Six Day War of 1967 and is considered to be fundamental to any future Palestinian state. All new Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law, and have been condemned repeatedly by the United Nations. The establishment of a separate municipal entity in Hebron is just the latest in a number of actions taken by Israel in recent months to reinforce the settler presence in the city.
This week, in a precedent-setting decision, Israel's Supreme Court delayed the eviction of a Jewish family which invaded a Palestinian home, expelled its owners and claimed ownership for itself, in order to hear an appeal from the settlers.
Last week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman also upgraded the status of settlers in Hebron so that they will receive the same services provided to other West Bank settlements, and transferred jurisdiction over the area from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to the Israeli Interior Ministry.
Concerns have also been raised at the behaviour of extremist Jewish settlers in Hebron. Last month, Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights petitioned a court against Hebrew signs around the city, placed by the self-proclaimed "Committee of the Renewal of the Jewish Community of Hebron", warning that they were eliminating Palestinian heritage.
The Israeli settler community was angered in July following the UNESCO declaration of the Old City of Hebron as a Palestinian World Heritage Site endangered by Israel. In response, Israel has pledged to cut its funding to the UN. The right-wing settlers have urged the Israeli government to remain defiant in the face of the resolution.