Israeli Police Forcibly Remove Squatters From West Bank Town of Hebron

Israeli security forces armed with sledge hammers, chain saws and power clippers smashed through the fortified doors of a two-story building in the heart of volatile Hebron Tuesday to remove two Jewish settler families and hundreds of supporters who came to help them resist eviction from an unauthorized squat in the Arab marketplace.

The military operation was meant to reduce conflict between settlers and Palestinians in the biblical town, but it also highlighted the growing schism between religious soldiers and an army command that orders them to carry out evacuations they deplore.

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Settlers spit and hurled stones, water and oil as police, backed by troops, broke through the reinforced doors and dragged the squatters out one by one. Three settlers sealed themselves inside a concrete bunker built for the standoff.

"This is a crime against justice and against Jewish history," said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. "I am sure we will return. Hebron has a long history and we will return."

Danny Poleg, a police spokesman, said four soldiers, 14 police officers and 12 settlers were injured during the eviction. One settler and six police were hospitalized. Eleven settlers were briefly detained and two arrested.

A watchdog group opposed to settlements accused the settlers of creating a media circus to try to deter the government from carrying out future clearances.

"The next time the government will think twice about evacuating people," said Yariv Oppenheimer, a leader of the Peace Now group.

The operation Tuesday followed the highly publicized refusal of several Orthodox Israeli infantry soldiers to take part in the evacuation. The army sentenced a dozen soldiers, including two commanders, to brief jail terms for the rebellion.

A joint statement by the umbrella committee of rabbis in the West Bank praised the mutineers for what it called "their just and moral struggle against a corrupt government which has no values."

Hebron, a frequent flashpoint of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, is home to about 500 religious Jewish settlers living in heavily guarded enclaves among some 170,000 Palestinians. Clashes are common.

Israel controls the center of the city, including a hotly disputed site holy to both Jews and Muslims — the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. A large military presence often hinders the movement of Palestinians.

In Tuesday's operation, after forcing one of the squat's doors, police encountered 30 youths singing songs who cursed the soldiers as they entered. Many sat atop a 4-foot-high (1.2-meter-high) concrete bunker in which three protesters had barricaded themselves. It took police three hours to bore through a neighboring wall to remove them.

"You're Hamas people," one woman screamed repeatedly at police while being dragged from the scene, referring to the radical Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip and is sworn to Israel's destruction.

Palestinian neighbors, apparently fearing being drawn into trouble, stayed well inside their homes, away from windows.

The two-story building evacuated Tuesday stands in the downtown marketplace, which the army shut down in 1994, after Jewish militant Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians in a shooting spree at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The settlers initially moved into the structure — a vacant store — more than six years ago, evacuating and re-entering it as the case made its way through the Israeli court system.

Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the settlers' presence there was illegal, but they ignored orders to leave. Hundreds of supporters moved into the building in recent days, reinforcing the doors and windows with metal and concrete in preparation for the raid.

Settlers claim the property was owned by Jewish families for decades until Jordanian authorities seized it after the 1948 Israeli war of independence. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.

Jews lived in Hebron for centuries until they were driven out by Arab riots in 1929 and 1936. The move to resettle the town after it came under Israeli rule was led by fundamentalist Jewish nationalists. Hebron's Palestinian mayor has demanded that the settlers be removed.

The eviction of settlers has fed a growing schism between the army command and religious conscripts, many of whom serve in combat units. Tensions spiked during Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in 2005, and again the following year when Israel uprooted part of an unsanctioned West Bank outpost.

Some of the soldiers who took part in those operations were themselves settlers and wept as they carried out their orders. Some said they were later ostracized by their communities, and there were reports of angry neighbors assaulting settler officers.

With the squat at the Hebron marketplace dating back more than six years, neither side expected Tuesday's eviction to be the last word.

"We have lots of patience," said Avinoam Horowitz, a local resident and high school teacher. "We'll do it again until we get back our property."

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