Hebron settlers evicted in early test for Israeli leader

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The Independent Online

Ehud Olmert's new Israeli government has come through its first trial of strength with militant Jewish settlers after the police forcibly evicted three families and 27 young supporters squatting in an Arab-owned house in the West Bank town of Hebron.

The operation, ordered last week by the Supreme Court and endorsed by the Prime Minister, took under three hours yesterday. The police deployed 700 men and women, backed by a cordon of 1,000 soldiers to keep out settler reinforcements.

Overnight, Jewish extremists burned tyres and pelted the police with stones, bottles and paint. They also hurled two petrol bombs, but neither ignited.

After officers sawed through a barricaded metal door, resistance collapsed. The three families - six adults and eight children - left the house near the Avraham Avinu settler enclave voluntarily. Police then cleared boys and girls supporting the settlers room by room. They detained 17 for questioning. Some 19 police and seven settlers, including a girl who fell off the roof, were lightly wounded.

One of the extremists calledthe Israeli police Nazis. Tzipi Schlissel, one of the evicted women, sat on the ground holding her baby. "The country is ruled by a corrupt gang," she shouted. "They don't care. They're only interested in money." Her husband, Rabbi Yisrael Schlissel, protested: "It is our house, bought with our money. The court wronged us. Justice was not done."

Israeli judges found that the documents produced by the settlers were forged and that the building still belonged to a Palestinian family called al-Nazar.

Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said the building would be sealed to ensure that the squatters did not return. The police said they would maintain a high level of security and patrols to minimise friction in one of the most volatile of West Bank cities, where about 500 ultra-nationalist Jews live among 160,000 Muslims. Hebron, the traditional burial place of their common ancestor Abraham, is holy to both religions.

David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said they were going back to court. "We're going to prove that the house was legally purchased, and then we're going to move back in." They might, he hinted, "pull a few surprise rabbits out of the hat" before then.

Addressing the first meeting of his Cabinet yesterday, Mr Olmert vowed: "We will not countenance the illegal creation of facts and violations of the law, certainly not in these sensitive areas. Wherever the law is violated, wherever there is illegal squatting and wherever there are attempts to determine these kinds of facts, we will respond immediately, without compromise."

The Prime Minister denied yesterday's operation was a trial run for the much more daunting challenge of evacuating dozens of outlying communities under his plan to redraw Israel's eastern border and concentrate the settlers in blocks closer to the pre-1967 Green Line.

The Hebron eviction passed off with none of the mayhem that marked the evacuation of settlers from the tiny Amona outpost in February, when 200 police and demonstrators were injured in a day-long battle.

Police and army have been less effective, however, in stopping the daily harassment of Palestinians by their Jewish neighbours.

Settlers from the Maon Farm, near Hebron, threw stones at Arab children walking to and from school in the village of Khirbet al-Tawani on Saturday. They fled after Israeli soldiers, who were escorting the children, fired warning shots in the air. No one was arrested. They seldom are.

In the nearby village of Susiya, Khalil Khalayla, an Arab farmer, found yesterday morning that settlers had uprooted 60 trees in his olive grove. The saplings had been planted by Jewish and Arab human rights activists last month to replace trees destroyed in an earlier raid. Settlers claim that the land in question belongs to them, but an Israeli court has already ruled in favour of the Palestinians.

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