Beit Hamachpela
Beit Hamachpela Israel news photo: Flash 90

Israel has had to push back the Jewish resettlement of a home in the biblical city of Hevron for legal reasons, Housing Minister Uri Ariel said on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday announced that Israelis could move back into the house, in response to the killing of an Israeli soldier in Hevron by a Palestinian Authority (PA) gunman.

But Ariel admitted to Voice of Israel public radio that Netanyahu's calls held no "official" authority, and that Jews could not resettle the house until its legal status was resolved.

Fourteen Arabs in Hevron had appealed, after Netanyahu's comments, to the Supreme Court, saying the house belonged to them.

Ariel accused the justice ministry of "systematic sabotage" to prevent the resettlement.

“But sooner or later, the house will be settled and I hope the prime minister and Defense Minster (Moshe Yaalon) will be more firm in future," he said.

The government last year removed 15 Jewish residents from the Machpela House, a Hevron structure near the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Jewish visitors from last Thursday have flocked in their thousands to the cave during the week-long holiday of Sukkot.

After the sniper shooting of Israeli soldier Gavriel (Gal) Kobi near the cave on Sunday, Netanyahu responded defiantly and ordered the resettlement of the house.

“Whoever tries to uproot us from the city of our patriarchs will achieve the opposite," he said in a statement.

On Monday evening, Orit Struck, an MK for the Bayit Yehudi party which is part of the ruling coalition, joined a group of Jews in moving into the building, public radio reported.

The settlers, who bought the Hevron building from its Arab owners, inhabited the structure briefly before being removed in April 2012, with the defense ministry saying they did not have the necessary permits to finalise the purchase.

A military court recently ruled the purchase legal, however, and said all that was needed to finalize the deal was the approval of Yaalon.

But an official involved in the process told AFP the purchase was still facing "legal bureaucracy" issues.

The city of Hevron is one of Judaism's holiest sites and an early Jewish capital, having been chosen by King David as his seat of power before moving it to Jerusalem. It has had a Jewish population contiguously since Biblical times, but in 1929, a particularly horrific massacre perpetrated by local Arabs drove out the Jews. The Jews returned in 1967 and currently inhabit several enclaves within the city.

The Cave of Patriarchs, where the graves of six of the seven Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs are located, is also located in Hevron, on a plot of land bought by the first Patriarch, Abraham, or Avraham Avinu. Machpela House is situated near the cave.