HEBRON, West Bank – Nineteen officers and seven settlers were reported injured during a clash outside as protesters tried to keep police from entering the building in a scene reminiscent of violence during last summer's forced evacuation of all the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
In another sign of his tough approach, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet's first session that he will also crack down on wildcat settler outposts in the West Bank that have drawn international criticism.
Olmert wants to withdraw from most of the West Bank and draw Israel's borders by 2010, a program that infuriates settlers, many of whom view the whole territory as a Jewish biblical birthright.
The plan also has angered Palestinian leaders because Olmert says he will proceed even without a peace deal, pursuing a course similar to the unilateral Gaza withdrawal initiated by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Hours before the Hebron eviction began, police and settlers clashed when officers cleared away a crowd of protesters outside the home. The squatters threw balloons and light bulbs filled with paint from the roof. Police said settlers inside also threw stones, bottles and firebombs.
Officers stormed inside after sawing through a barricaded metal door. Some in the crowd outside tried to force their way in, too, but officers pulled the struggling protesters away, sometimes slapping them to calm their thrashing.
Police appealed to the squatters — some with toddlers and babies — to leave peacefully, and some agreed. But others had to be hauled out, including one woman whose infant bawled as officers carried them out.
The operation took about two hours, and three families and 27 young sympathizers were removed, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said. He said 17 settlers were arrested.
Discarded water bottles, ice cream wrappers and half-eaten sandwiches overflowed from cardboard boxes in the damp, stone alley in front of the emptied building, which is not far from the Tomb of the Patriarchs — a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims.
Authorities said about 700 police, supported by 1,000 soldiers, took part in the operation to enforce a court order that the squatters be removed.
Palestinians claiming to own the building went to court seeking their eviction. The settlers argued they had bought the home, but Israel's Supreme Court ruled that key documents were forged and ordered the eviction.
Olmert waited just minutes after the Hebron operation ended before telling his Cabinet that he would also remove unauthorized West Bank outposts, another flashpoint between the government and settlers over plans to give up land with large populations of Palestinians.
"In the next few years, we will change Israel's character to ensure it will be a state with a solid Jewish majority living in defensible borders that can provide security to the residents of Israel," Olmert said at a ceremony marking his official entrance into the Prime Minister's Office as head of a coalition government approved by parliament Thursday.
"In every case where the law is violated, we will respond without compromise, and we won't reconcile ourselves to illegal facts on the ground," Olmert's office quoted him as saying.
A government-commissioned report last year said settlers have established 105 unauthorized outposts over the past decade.
Settlers say openly that the outposts, sometimes no more than a mobile home and an Israeli flag on a barren hilltop, are designed to break up Palestinian areas and prevent establishment of a Palestinian state.
Israel promised the U.S. government to dismantle about two dozen outposts set up since Sharon was first elected prime minister in March 2001, but little action has been taken yet.
Hebron has long been a powder keg because of the extremists among its 160,000 Palestinian residents and 500 ultranationalist Jews who live in heavily fortified enclaves.
"Murderers," a young Jewish settler yelled at a group of Palestinian youths peeking from a second-floor window during the eviction.
"Every Arab can buy a house in Hebron and no one will evacuate them, but because we are Jews they evacuate us," complained Orit Struk, a Hebron settler who was inside the building during the eviction. "This is the direction the Olmert government wants to go: expulsion and evacuation of Jews."