Israel gives Hebron settler enclaves more powers
JERUSALEM - Israel has given Jewish settlement enclaves in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron the authority to manage their own municipal affairs, in what critics say is an entrenchment of "apartheid".
The army said it had signed an order to boost the powers of the settlers, who had until now run their day-to-day affairs in the council that served as a local authority but had no legal standing.
"By force of the order, an administration will be established to represent the residents of the Jewish neighbourhood in Hebron and to provide them with municipal services in a variety of fields," it said in an English-language statement issued late Thursday.
Hebron, in the southern West bank, is home to around 200,000 Palestinians, with about 800 settlers living under Israeli army protection in several heavily fortified compounds in the heart of the city.
In July the United Nations declared its Old City an endangered world heritage site, infuriating Israel and delighting Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a $1-million cut in funding to the UN, saying the UNESCO vote ignored Jewish ties to the site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque.
It is holy to both religions, with Old Testament figures including Abraham believed to be buried there.
The 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers there by Israeli-American Baruch Goldstein led to an agreement three years later giving the Palestinian Authority control over 80 percent of the city.
The settlers and about 30,000 Palestinians living adjacent to them fall under Israeli military rule.
Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now said the new arrangement was more than a technicality.
"By granting official status to the Hebron settlers, the Israeli government is formalising the apartheid system in the city," it said in a statement on Thursday.
"This step... is another illustration of the policy of compensating the most extreme settlers for their illegal actions," it added.
Settlement building in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem is considered illegal under international law.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he had ordered the change in the settler council's status and pledged to do more.
"For me the strengthening of the Jewish community in Hebron is of very great importance," a statement from his office said.
"I am determined to continue to promote settlement so that it will bloom and thrive."