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Israeli Forces on Alert for Extremist Settler Violence After West Bank Evictions

Israel placed military and police forces on alert Friday to head off new violence after the evacuation of a disputed West Bank building brought tensions between the government, extremist settlers and Palestinians to a peak.

Army forces were beefed up across the West Bank, defense officials said. The move follows the eviction of settlers from a four-story building in the town of Hebron on Thursday and subsequent rampages by settler youth who attacked Israeli policemen and Palestinians and set fire to Palestinian homes and cars.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make the alert public.

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There were some 500 policemen in and around Hebron on Friday, a substantial increase from the usual deployment, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. Officers also took up positions elsewhere in the West Bank to prevent possible settler violence, he said.

He said he expected the deployment to remain in effect over the Jewish sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Worried about possible Palestinian disturbances in retaliation for the settler attacks, police also restricted the entrance of Muslim worshippers at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque because of fears that riots could erupt there during Friday's communal prayers. Palestinian men under 45 were barred, Rosenfeld said. Police beefed up positions in other parts of the city as well.

In central Hebron, several dozen Palestinians protesting the settler attacks clashed with soldiers, who responded with tear gas. In Jerusalem's Old City, police clashed with a group of Palestinian youth. No injuries were reported in either incident, though two Palestinians were arrested for assaulting an officer in Jerusalem.

Palestinian residents near the disputed building, who spent much of Thursday cowering in their homes, emerged Friday to inspect the damage and sweep up stones thrown by settlers. The building was empty and under military guard, its metal doors chained shut and padlocked by soldiers. The troops briefly allowed settlers back into the building to collect their belongings.

The settlers claim to have purchased the building from a Palestinian, who claims he did not sell it. The settlers moved in without the necessary government approval early last year, and last month the Supreme Court ordered them evicted until a lower court decides who the rightful owner is.

About 600 Jewish settlers live in guarded enclaves in Hebron, a city of 170,000 Palestinians.

Some 35 people were hurt in the clashes between settlers and soldiers Thursday. Rescue workers and Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital said one settler was moderately wounded, and the others were lightly injured. Palestinian hospital officials said 17 Palestinians were wounded, including five from bullets.

Israeli army commanders met Friday with their Palestinian counterparts for what the army called routine talks on security coordination. Officials discussed the incidents in Hebron and "agreed to work together to prevent violence and to keep the public order," the army said.

Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, summoned foreign diplomats Friday to an urgent consultation about the Hebron incidents, asking for international intervention and for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Israel must protect Hebron's Palestinians and should remove settlers from the city, Malki said: "We hold the Israeli government and army responsible for what is happening."

The U.N.'s Mideast envoy, Robert Serry, welcomed Israel's eviction of the settlers but condemned the ensuing violence.

"As the occupying power, the government of Israel is under obligation to protect Palestinian civilians, property and holy sites," Serry said in a statement.

"I remain concerned about the potential for a further escalation of a tense situation," he said.