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West Bank settler eviction offers warning, hope

Sunday, December 21, 2008

By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press Writer

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HEBRON, West Bank — 

Israel's swift eviction of Jewish zealots from one of the most volatile West Bank flashpoints offers encouragement to people both inside and outside Israel who hope it is still possible to uproot settlers to make room for a Palestinian state.

Israeli police and soldiers encountered little resistance this month when they expelled some 200 extremists from a contested house in Hebron, near the traditional burial site of Abraham, the shared patriarch of Muslims and Jews.

But the shooting and arson attacks by settlers on Palestinians following the eviction were a reminder of how quickly the West Bank could plunge into violence, taking down any hopes of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Removing tens of thousands of Jews from the West Bank as part of a peace accord is becoming an increasingly difficult proposition as radicals resort to violence to keep land they believe God promised them.

An increasingly alienated minority of the 280,000 Jews who have settled in the West Bank since Israel captured it from Jordan in 1967 is taking matters into its own hands. They attack Palestinian civilians and Israeli troops every time the government acts against them, calling the operation "price tag" _ meaning the toll they would exact in resisting evacuation.

Some settlers worry that the extreme violence _ including hurling rocks and bleach and firing weapons _ could backfire, making it easier for Israelis to see them as the enemy and stomach using force against them.

"I believe that if Israel hates us, then they'll give up Judea and Samaria," settler leader Pinchas Wallerstein said, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

Still, settlers have been pushed back before, most notably when Israel evicted 8,500 from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Ephraim Sneh, former top military administrator of the West Bank, said settlers have used the threat of violence to compensate for weakened political influence.

"I believe that most Israelis understand that more than 90 percent of the West Bank should be evacuated. So in this sense, the political influence of the settlers is diminished," Sneh said.

"On the other hand, a very small but militant and fanatic group of settlers is trying to create a balance of horror vis-a-vis the government," he said.

Many Israelis see a pullout of these settlers as their only escape from a demographic race they are bound to lose to the faster-growing Arab population.

"The fact that outposts haven't been evacuated in any serious way is a clear sign that the government is really afraid of the violent confrontations that would be involved," said Gershom Gorenberg, who has written extensively about the Jewish extremists who settle in West Bank territories.

In March 2007, settlers moved into a house in the middle of a heavily populated Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron and defied government eviction orders for over a year.

The only way security forces could remove them was to operate by stealth and strike when they thought they were on the verge of an agreement with the government, settler leader David Wilder said.

Next time authorities might not find it so easy, he said.

Rocket attacks on Israeli towns from Gaza, and Hamas' takeover of the territory following Israel's withdrawal, have emboldened those opposing further concessions.

Also, Israel's removal of the settlers in West Bank territories might become harder if the nationalist Likud Party is returned to power in elections Feb. 10. Several of its candidates for parliament are ardent supporters of the settlers.

Israeli governments are always reluctant to use guns or clubs on settlers, seeking instead to overwhelm the settlers in numbers. Three years ago, it took thousands of soldiers and police to knock down nine houses in the unauthorized outpost of Amona. More than 200 people were wounded, most of them soldiers and police.

To empty the house in Hebron, hundreds of border police were mobilized.

"If it takes 2,000 cops to demolish nine houses in Amona, a huge contingent to evacuate a house in Hebron, how are you going to evacuate Ofra or Beit-El?" Gorenberg asked, referring to older settlements with populations of 3,000 and more than 5,000 respectively.

The settlers are trying "strategic deterrence," he said, and he believes it's working.

Would settlers who use weapons against Palestinians do so against their own army? No one can be sure, but Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's internal security service, has warned of "a very high willingness among this public to use violence _ not just stones, but live weapons _ in order to prevent or halt a peace process."

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