JERUSALEM – Hundreds of angry, screaming Jewish settlers scuffled with Israeli troops on a West Bank (search) hilltop Thursday when the military tore down a tent camp, the first populated outpost targeted under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Settlers set fire to underbrush and threw purple paint on the windows of armored bulldozers as the troops approached. When the soldiers began tearing down the four filthy tents, the settlers hollered battle cries and charged, trading blows with them on the dusty hilltop.
Earlier in the day, a Palestinian homicide bomber blew himself up in an Israeli grocery store, killing the owner, despite an intense push by Palestinian and international leaders to persuade militant groups to end attacks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell was headed to the region Friday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to salvage the peace plan. He condemned the bombing, saying "such acts of terrorism are committed by people who don't want to see two sides living side by side in peace."
Stopping Palestinian attacks on Israelis and taking down the unauthorized outposts are key elements of the first phase of the U.S.-backed "road map" to Middle East peace, a three-step plan launched June 4 that envisions an end to more than 2 years of violence and creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
Hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police sent to dismantle the West Bank settlement outpost of Mitzpeh Yitzhar got into bloody fistfights with settlers Thursday after about 200 people from nearby settlements converged on the hilltop.
They blocked the road with cars, burning tires and sharp objects. They then grappled with soldiers and police who began ripping down the tents.
The hundreds of paratroopers and police on the hilltop were armed only with the knives they carried to remove the settlers' tents. About 30 people were hurt on both sides, none of them seriously, and Israel Radio said 15 people were arrested.
The year-old outpost, with four tents and two buildings, had about 10 residents, and was founded by a 22-year-old. Israel dismantled 10 uninhabited outposts last week.
Authorities also used sledgehammers to demolish one building. The settlers immediately began working in the foundations of two tents that had been torn down.
"This is our land, our home," said Yosi Peli, a settler from the nearby Yitzhar settlement. "Tomorrow we will be here again on this hill or on other hills."
About 220,000 people live in settlements authorized by the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many are just across the line in the West Bank and are basically suburbs of cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Others, like Mitzpeh Yitzhar, are in the heart of the West Bank, populated by ultranationalist Israelis who believe for religious and security reasons that none of the West Bank should be given up.
Mitzpeh Yitzhar is an unauthorized encampment about a half-mile from a larger settlement — one of more than about 100 such outposts U.S. officials say have been established in recent years.
Under the road map, Israel is also supposed to freeze all construction in older settlements. Palestinians say all the settlements, not just the outposts, are illegal encroachments.
In Gaza, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) met Thursday with two small militant groups in his fourth day of talks aimed at a cease-fire, then convened a meeting with all the Palestinian factions Thursday night. No agreements were announced.
Militant groups have indicated they may agree to a cease-fire if Israel makes several concessions. But they made clear they weren't going to adopt one yet with the homicide bombing Thursday at the grocery store in the village of Sdeh Trumot near the West Bank.
The militant group Islamic Jihad (search) claimed responsibility for the attack and identified the bomber as 22-year-old Ahmed Abahreh.
The bomber had probably intended to target a bus or a bus stop in Sdeh Trumot, and entered the supermarket to wait, police spokesman Yaron Zamir said. The store owner, Avner Mordechai, 63, was suspicious and approached the man, who then detonated the explosives, Zamir said. Mordechai was killed.
"We have no doubt that the store owner paid with his life to save others," the police spokesman said.
Israel has said it might accept a temporary cease-fire of up to six weeks, but officials have stressed that Abbas would then have to crack down on the militant groups. Israelis reject a partial truce that leaves soldiers and settlers open to attack.
Islamic Jihad and the other main militant group, Hamas (search), have demanded an end to the targeted killings of suspected militants as part of a possible truce deal.
Also Thursday, Israel's opposition Labor Party chose the symbol of peacemaking with the Palestinians, elder statesman Shimon Peres (search), as its chairman for one year.
Many expect Peres to try to lead his party back into Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) government, restoring an unusual partnership that fell apart last November. In the election that followed, Sharon handed Labor its worst defeat ever.
As part of the efforts to bolster the road map, U.S. envoy John Wolf has been shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian officials. He met Thursday with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
Palestinian officials said Wolf was making progress in getting Israel to scale back targeted killings. Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, denied that Israel had agreed to reduce such strikes.
Palestinian officials also said Abbas would meet with Powell in the West Bank town of Jericho on Friday.