Israel took its strongest action against Jewish settlers in nearly three years Thursday as riot police stormed a disputed building in Hebron, using tear gas and stun grenades to force out 250 young extremists bent on expanded Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
After losing a swift afternoon battle, settlers struck back into the night with gunfire and arson attacks on Palestinians in this troubled city and other parts of the West Bank, raising tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Seventeen Palestinians were wounded along with at least 35 Israeli soldiers, police officers and settlers. Fires blazed after dusk along a ravine dividing Hebron, a largely Palestinian city, and the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba as police skirmished with settlers on both sides.
Israel’s tolerance of settlement growth has been an obstacle to progress in U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks over the last year. But Thursday’s raid stemmed mainly from pressures within Israel’s legal and political systems.
“What was put to the test today was the state’s ability to enforce the law and its will on its citizens,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who ordered the raid in belated response to a Supreme Court order.
About 250,000 Jewish settlers live among 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. They coexist most intimately in and around Hebron, a city that is holy to Jews and Muslims; alongside 170,000 Palestinians live nearly 8,000 religion-driven settlers who regard the entire West Bank as land God gave the Jews.
Most of the world considers the settlements illegal. But for decades Israel has treated their occupants as brave pioneers. It formally supports the bulk of the settlements, even while accepting the Palestinians’ demand to recover the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of the agenda for peace talks.
Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005. But it has resisted U.S. pressure to halt expansion of suburban-style settlements across the West Bank and shied away from evicting settlers from the 100 or so rudimentary outposts it does not formally authorize.
One such eviction, in the outpost of Amona in February 2006, met such violent resistance that the government had been hesitant to replicate it elsewhere -- until Thursday.
The target of the raid, a four-story stone house on the Hebron side of the ravine, has been contested since March of last year when settlers claiming to have purchased it moved in. The acquisition was part of a plan to establish a Jewish presence in a corridor linking Kiryat Arba’s 7,000 Jews with a settlement of 700 in the heart of Hebron.
Faiz Rajabi, a Palestinian, says the building belongs to him and denies that he sold it to settlers.
As the case went to court last year, the number of Jewish occupants grew to about 150, including families with children. They called the place House of Peace and defied a string of government eviction orders.
The Supreme Court forced the issue Nov. 16 by ordering the government to take custody of the building until Israel’s legal system completed a lengthy process of resolving the ownership dispute.
Barak met Thursday morning with the Yesha Council, a mainstream settler group that tried to mediate between the government and the activists in Hebron. They failed to reach an agreement, but the council’s leaders left the meeting thinking that one was still possible. A state of alert among settlers at the contested house eased.
Seizing the advantage of surprise, 600 police and soldiers moved in three hours later and ringed the house. About 100 police officers stormed all entrances, filling the house with tear gas and blocking hallways to keep the settlers isolated in separate rooms.
A police squad swiftly took control of the roof, neutralizing a potentially lethal threat -- large boulders stockpiled there as weapons against police on the ground.
Settlers inside the building fought back with rocks, eggs and chemicals.
“The expulsion has begun!” an Israeli named Orel wrote on eretzil.org, a Hebrew-language settler forum. “Anyone who can arrive at the House of Peace should come now. Those who cannot come should begin acts of revenge in the towns.”
Less than an hour later, police were in control of the house. Many of the settlers had left voluntarily. Others had been carried out one by one, their hands and legs held by teams of two to four officers.
Soldiers and police formed a human chain, blocking attempts by settlers to reenter.
At that point, the settlers began clashing with Hebron’s Palestinians, who threw stones at them from rooftops. Settlers set fire to two homes, a store and nine cars, Palestinian officials said. In an incident caught on film, a settler shot and wounded a 65-year-old Palestinian and his adult son outside their Hebron home.
Settlers briefly sat on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, snarling traffic. In the West Bank they pelted cars with rocks and blocked roads with burning tires near Ramallah, Kalkilya and Nablus, and set fire to olive groves near Nablus, witnesses said.
Many Jews who charged into Hebron from Kiryat Arba to skirmish with police had their families in tow.
Nir Nahum, a 42-year-old teacher, clutched his 8-year-old son’s hand while retreating from a charging police phalanx.
“We don’t have the power to recapture the house right now,” the teacher said. “Our power is in our ideas, in the Torah. This is the land of Israel, and we’ll keep fighting to preserve it for our children. We will not give up easily."--
Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
Photographs of the clash in Hebron are available online.