Israelis uncover 'terrorist group' formed by West Bank settlers

ISRAELI security services have made a series of arrests recently in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. They claim to have uncovered a new 'Jewish underground'.

The Jewish underground that emerged in Hebron in the early 1980s plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine in Jerusalem. This time, according to Israeli press reports, the suspects had intended to carry out a 'massacre' in an Arab village, and to blow up Orient House, the Palestinian headquarters in Arab East Jerusalem.

Israeli officials would not confirm the precise nature of the plot. But the seriousness of the allegations were highlighted on Monday, when the Supreme Court refused the suspects the right to see their lawyers, due to the 'threat to the security of the state'.

The intelligence services, heavily slated in the wake of the Hebron massacre for failing to monitor the likes of Baruch Goldstein - the doctor who slaughtered 29 Muslims in their Hebron mosque in February - have been keen to highlight the success of their recent Hebron operation. They have been leaking details even before the suspects have been formally charged.

The settlers were detained just two streets away from Orient House, carrying automatic weapons and grenades, according to newspaper reports. 'The Shin Bet (Israel's internal security service) uncovered an entire group of people who were going to carry out attacks which would have cost lives and could have hurt the fragile relationship between us and the Arabs,' said Ori Orr, chairman of the Israeli Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.

The arrests appear to confirm evidence that Goldstein was not a lone crazed maniac, but the product of violent fanaticism that has taken root in extremist Jewish settlements - particularly those in Hebron, where 7,000 Jews live in fortified enclaves inside this staunchly Muslim town of 100,000 Arabs.

In the wake of the massacre, the most rascist settler groups, Kach and Kahan Hai, were outlawed. The group just arrested, however, does not fit the traditional profile of extremist settlers. Most members were young and not well-known as activists. This suggests a new breed of lower-profile militant may be forming among young settlers.

The profile of those arrested also shows that the ties between elements in the Israeli army and extremist settlers are as strong as ever. Two of the men detained, Kobi Pinto and Oren Edri, are young army officers who lived in Kiryat Arba. Mr Pinto is in the elite Golani brigade.

All settlers have the right to carry arms. Kiryat Arba resembles a militia training camp, and most of its male settlers serve in the Israeli army reserves, often patrolling their own Arab neighbours. Goldstein was the Israeli army doctor in Hebron.

As emerged at the time of the massacre, the recruitment of militant settlers into the Israeli army also opens up the possibility of illegal weapons reaching extremist Jewish factions. At a court hearing yesterday, Mr Edri was accused of stealing arms and training civilians in military action.

The paranoia evident in Kiryat Arba has been building up ever since the Hebron massacre, when it appeared likely that some Hebron settlers would be removed. At the same time, the prospect of spreading Palestinian autonomy, which envisages the Israeli army redeploying out of Arab population centres like Hebron, and the arrival of Palestinian police, has raised questions about the future of Kiryat Arba.

Ehud Barak, the Israeli Chief of Staff, said recently there was no intention to redeploy the army from Hebron. All the evidence suggests the presence of settlers here has been reinforced, with more army protection and more barricades. New building is underway in Kiryat Arba, and settlers say their numbers are rising. However, the settlers have no confidence in their own state to protect them. They say the recent arrests are a plot by the Rabin government to destabilise the settlers, and they refuse to believe any of the charges against the detainees, complaining instead of human rights violations and Israeli police harrassment.

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