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Israel removes settlers from homes on private Palestinian land

By Eli Berzlon

OFRA, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli police began removing settlers and hundreds of supporters on Tuesday from nine houses built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

Police carried some of the settlers and protesters out of the red-roofed structures in the settlement of Ofra, while others walked out, escorted by officers.

Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the demolition of nine buildings in the settlement of more than 3,000 people after finding that those homes were constructed on land where Palestinians proved ownership.

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Such judicial rulings upholding Palestinian property rights have riled Israel's right-wing, as it promotes plans to expand construction in settlements built on occupied territory Palestinians seek for a state.

In one home in Ofra, police and protesters, mainly youths, linked arms and swayed in prayer before the youngsters, offering passive resistance, were taken outside.

"We feel that this is not right at all, what's being done here: the destruction of these homes in the center of a Jewish town, in the center of a populated town that was established legally 42 years ago," said Eliana Passentin, a spokeswoman for the local settler regional council.

There was little initial sign of the kind of violence that accompanied a larger-scale evacuation on Feb. 2 of Amona, a West Bank settlement-outpost built without Israeli government permission in 1995.

More than 100 youngsters had protested against the removal of Amona's 300 settlers. Some 60 officers and at least four demonstrators were hurt in scuffles there that included bleach being thrown at police.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements on land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war to be illegal. Israel disagrees, citing biblical, historical and political links to the land as well as security interests.

Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces left in 2005, with East Jerusalem as its capital. They say settlement construction could deny them a viable and contiguous country.

Some 550,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem, areas that are home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

Three weeks ago, Israel's parliament retroactively legalized about 4,000 settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land. The new law did not apply to Amona or the nine dwellings in Ofra because of standing court rulings.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office in January, Israel has announced plans to build 6,000 more settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

But at a White House news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Feb. 15, Trump startled the Israeli leader by saying he would like to see him "hold back on settlements for a bit". Netanyahu later said he hoped to "reach an understanding" with Trump on settlements.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)