Agence France Presse (AFP)
November 20, 2008 - 8:00pm

Israel beefed up security on Friday as 25,000 Jewish pilgrims were expected in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron amid fears of violence as a group of settlers defied an eviction order.

Dozens of police and troops took up positions outside the house where about 100 hardline settlers and their supporters have vowed to resist any attempt to enforce the High Court order.

From the roof of the four-storey building, which houses a small army observation post, armoured vehicles could be seen patrolling the road leading from the Kiryat Arba settlement to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the city centre, both about 500 metres (yards) away.

"We have almost doubled our forces," an officer said in reference to the police and army deployment in Hebron, as pilgrims flocked into the volatile city to mark the biblical story of Abraham's purchase of the land that now houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, holy to both Jews and Muslims.

"We are prepared for any act of terrorism, any violence," the officer said, asking not to be identified. He said about 25,000 pilgrims are expected for the weekend celebrations.

Graffiti insulting Arabs and the Islamic faith was sprayed on a Hebron mosque and on tombstones in a Muslim cemetery before dawn on Thursday.

Settler attacks on security forces and Palestinian property have further raised tension in the city, where a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

"Tensions here are very high," said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, whose daughter lives in the disputed house with her family.

US-born Wilder insisted that the families occupying what they call the "House of Peace" are determined to offer peaceful resistance to any effort to move them out -- as long as the security forces do not resort to force.

"We won't be getting up and walking out, that's for sure," he said.

Haim Cohen, 50, who moved into the house on Friday, agreed.

"This is not the Holocaust where they take us to the gas chambers. This is a free country. We are not going to go like sheep to the slaughterhouse," he said as he unloaded foam mattresses and other belongings from his car.

He said he was joining the settlers in solidarity. "And because I want peace.

"The goal of terrorists is to throw us out of the land. If we throw ourselves out, we reward terrorists and they continue their terror," he said.

There were concerns an eviction operation could lead to violence, particularly since hardline settlers have adopted a "price tag" policy under which they exact revenge on Israeli security forces or Palestinians every time they are forced to give up land in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians walking past the house faced a stream of insults from the younger residents of the disputed property.

Wilder insisted the house was bought from a Palestinian at a cost of more than one million dollars, dismissing the court ruling that the purchase was not completed and that the documents meant to prove it were fakes.

With more than 170,000 Palestinian residents, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank apart from annexed Arab east Jerusalem.

It has long been a flashpoint because of a settler enclave of around 600 hardline Jews in the heart of the city, and a further 6,500 settlers living in Kiryat Arba on the outskirts.

The international community considers Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank illegal and the Palestinians say they are the biggest obstacle to US-backed peace talks relaunched a year ago.

But Wilder believes Jews have a divine right to the entire biblical land of Israel.

"We read this week how Abraham paid 400 silver shekels for a cave in Hebron," he said in reference to the reading of the Torah celebrated this weekend.

"This land was promised to us, it was given to us."


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