WASHINGTON - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinted yesterday that the government will not forcibly evacuate settlers from the so-called "House of Contention" in Hebron, but will instead settle for preventing settler attacks on their Palestinian neighbors.

Speaking with reporters during his trip to Washington, Olmert said: "I read the High Court of Justice's decision closely. It ordered the house's occupants to vacate within three days, and if they do not, [it said], the government will have to do so. But it did not explicitly order the government to do so. There is something less than completely unequivocal in the wording the court chose."

However, he added, "The repeated attacks on Palestinian civilians and property are clearly intolerable, and we will have to act against them with full force."

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak plans to review the army and police plans for evacuating the house.

In its ruling last week, the High Court ordered the house cleared until another court decides whether Jews or Palestinians own it. However, the settlers refused to leave voluntarily, so the security forces are now preparing for a forcible evacuation.

It is still not clear when this evacuation will take place, if it does at all. Defense forces explained that they have received conflicting legal opinions as to whether it must be carried out within 30 days, and are therefore awaiting a definitive ruling from Attorney General Menachem Mazuz.

The army would prefer to wait longer, out of fear that carrying out the evacuation at the height of an election campaign, when the atmosphere is already heated, would lead to violence. Rightist MKs, for instance, have already announced that they plan to support the settlers. Barak will have to take this concern into account when deciding on a date for the evacuation.

If an evacuation is ordered, the army will try to prevent a clash by surprising the settlers. However, that will be difficult, because the operation will require large forces, making it hard to conceal from the settlers.