Community in the firing line hardens its resolve

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Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and his armed forces have bombed the Palestinians with F-16s, shelled them with tanks, sealed them in their towns with his army, and assassinated them at the rate of more than one a week. But neither this – nor the encirclement of Yasser Arafat – was enough to satisfy the angry Jewish settlers of Emmanuel.

The small settlement was in mourning yesterday for the 10 Israelis, mostly fellow settlers, who were killed the night before when Palestinians attacked a bus, first with a road-side bomb and then – after the driver drove on in his badly damaged vehicle for several hundred yards – with machine-guns.

The killers struck as the bus wound up a narrow road only yards from the large electronic gate that separates the settlement from the land it occupies. On one side of the gate is the undulating West Bank. Inside are the grubby flats that house Emmanuel's several thousand ultra-Orthodox, and largely poor, residents.

In this secluded world even Mr Sharon is regarded as weak and liberal. And the Israeli army, which has provided many of the settlers with their guns – pistols and M-16s, much in evidence yesterday – is regarded as an obstacle. Shlomo Agabella, 50, said: "They don't let us defend ourselves. We could manage. But they don't let us do anything. So we are killed by the Arabs like sheep."

The small group of men around him – all bearded and in black hats or skullcaps – seemed to agree. Rabbi Yehoshua Levi said: "The US government and Britain and Europe don't like anything that the Israeli army does to protect itself, and therefore Israel can do very little."

Three weeks ago, they said, Palestinian gunmen sprayed a car with bullets in the same area – a dry run, they thought, for Wednesday's bloodbath.

A knot of dazed people stood outside the mayor's office, next to a notice board with a freshly printed poster listing the names of the victims. At least half the dead came from the Emmanuel community.

There was Esther Avraham, a mother of seven, who had only just moved in. There were three members of the Tsafati family – Yaakov, David and Hanan – all wiped out in an instant; Yair Amar was returning home from his seminary to spend the third night of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah with his parents. He was only 14 years old, and fresh from his bar mitzvah a few weeks before.

And there were some near-misses. Jane Agabella – a woman from Bradford, West Yorkshire, who converted to Judaism after visiting Israel 20 years ago to work on a kibbutz – said her daughter Tehilla, 14, should have been on the bus but had decided to stay overnight with friends. "The miracle is that it did not happen here before," she said.

Emotions were raw and quick to erupt. Being devout, few of the residents of Emman-uel watch television. That did not stop a burly man from attacking with his fists a reporter from an Israeli television station – which is perceived by the religious right to oppose the settlers, and is unacceptably secular.

Here, as everywhere in this conflict, violence is only hardening attitudes. The Settlers Council responded to the Emmanuel killings by demanding yesterday that Israel topple the Palestinian Authority, banish Mr Arafat, its leader, and reoccupy the occupied territories.

A year ago, such talk would have been dismissed as wild. Now people are not so sure.

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