HEBRON, West Bank – Israeli security forces stormed a disputed house in the biblical city of Hebron on Thursday, dragging out some 250 settlers who barricaded themselves inside and hurled rocks, eggs and chemicals at their evictors.
It was the first major West Bank evacuation since a violent 2006 confrontation that injured hundreds. Settlers attempted to go back into the four-story structure, but soldiers formed a human chain around the house to keep them from doing so.
Army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovitz said the evacuation of the house, one of the most volatile flashpoints in the West Bank, was completed in about 20 minutes.
The security forces took over the house in a surprise operation. They then began dragging out the people inside one by one, their hands and legs held by teams of two or four officers.
Scenes of violence played themselves out as some 600 soldiers and policemen started to evict the settlers. TV images showed two young girls punching and hitting soldiers. Security forces in full riot gear used stun grenades and tear gas to repel the settlers.
"This is an act of scoundrels, Jews evicting Jews from their homes," settler leader Daniella Weiss told Israel's Channel 10 TV.
Israel's rescue service says 20 people on both sides were hurt. One of the settlers sustained serious head wounds, and he was whisked into an ambulance on a stretcher. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld that a policeman was moderately injured after a chemical liquid was tossed in his face.
Nearby, fist fights broke out between settler youths and Palestinians in the area. Israeli rescue services deployed two helicopters along with a fleet of ambulances to the scene to evacuate the wounded.
Right-wing activists blocked the main road to Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon, and scuffled with police who tried to disperse them. Rosenfeld said police arrested 11 rioters who flung stones at police forces.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he ordered the army to evict the settlers after all attempts to persuade them to leave peacefully failed. Barak had met with settler leaders earlier in the day and the sides failed to reach a compromise.
"This could have been done peacefully and legally. Instead Barak chose violence," said Danny Dayan, leader of the Yesha settler council. "This surprised us completely. He threw a match in a pile of gun powder."
The lightening-quick raid drew immediate reaction from across the Israeli political spectrum. Ultranationalist lawmaker Arieh Eldad accused Barak of using the army for political purposes. Barak's Labor party was also holding its primaries on Thursday.
"No doubt this came too late but it's better late than never," countered dovish lawmaker Avshalom Vilan. "This was a test for the rule of law and it shows there is one law for everybody for people in Hebron, Tel Aviv and everywhere."
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said: "In Israel the rule of law prevails and not the rule of the vigilante."
The army said its troops, along with police, carried out the evacuation and vowed to deal fiercely with resisters.
"Any act of violence will be met with force," Leibovitz said. "The army and police forces are ready to act against these rioters."
More than a dozen settler families took over the house in March 2007 and remained there despite a series of eviction orders. About 600 of Israel's most extreme settlers have taken up residence in the center of Hebron, living in the midst of 170,000 Palestinians.
The settlers, fearful of a possible evacuation, have stepped up their violence in recent months.
Hebron is the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of both Jews and Muslims.
Settlers moved in to the house after claiming they bought it from a Palestinian. The Palestinian denies the claim and Israeli authorities have not recognized the sale as legal. Israel's Supreme Court ordered the house evacuated last month.
Settlers say about 20 families were living in the building, but the population appears to fluctuate between a few dozen and a few hundred, with any rumor of an impending eviction sending people rushing in from nearby settlements.
Thursday's eviction was the first major evacuation since Israeli troops removed sections of the Amona outpost in February 2006. Dozens were injured at that time as hundreds of riot police battled settlers.
Two dozen people were injured Tuesday when settlers and Palestinians threw rocks at each other. After the settlers also threw stones at soldiers, the troops used stun grenades against the Israelis.
On Wednesday, Jewish youths clashed with riot police near the building, hurling paint-filled balloons, and unsuccessfully tried to break into another Hebron property claimed by settlers.
The attacks on security forces drew condemnations from Israel's leaders.
"We must be clear: If someone throws a stone at a soldier, it is as if he is throwing a stone at the state of Israel," President Shimon Peres said.