The Israeli military has created a new authority to provide municipal services for settlers in Hebron, drawing accusations that Israel is moving closer to annexing parts of the volatile West Bank city.
The military order, signed last week, alters a 20-year-old agreement in Hebron's Old City, where several hundred ultranationalist settlers live in heavily guarded enclaves surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians.
While Israel maintained security control over the area under the 1997 agreement, municipal services to Palestinians and settlers were provided by the Palestinians.
The order, signed by Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, head of the military's Central Command, establishes a new "municipal services administration" for the Jewish neighborhood, the army said.
"By force of the order, an administration will be established to represent the residents of the Jewish neighborhood in Hebron and to provide them with municipal services in a variety of fields," it said.
Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, and a frequent flashpoint of violence between the tiny hard-line Jewish community and the Palestinian majority. It also has deep religious significance for Jews and Muslims, who revere it as the burial site of religious patriarchs.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future independent state. They say that all settlements are illegal, a position that has wide international backing.
Kamel Hmeid, the city's Palestinian governor, said the military's order favored settlers at the expense of the Palestinian population and was meant to deepen Israeli control.
"It paves the way for the settlers to expand their control over the Old City and paves the way for Israel to annex this part of the city," he said. "Israel has been facilitating the settlement project in the city for years, and now they have made a big leap in changing the face of the city and Judaizing it."
Hagit Ofran of the anti-settlement watchdog group said the decision formalized what she called "the already existing apartheid in the city," since Jewish settlers will now receive superior municipal services from Israel.
"It also undermines the authorities of the Palestinian municipality," she added. "It is symbolic but also a meaningful step that allows the settlers to control their lives and get more budgets to affect what's going on in Hebron."
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