Furious Jewish settlers went on a violent rampage last night after security forces unexpectedly stormed and evacuated a house the settlers had commandeered in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Fire officers said that three Palestinian houses and nine cars were alight, while the Israeli human rights organisation Btselem released a video apparently showing a settler shooting and wounding a Palestinian at close range and other Palestinians retaliating by pelting the gunman with stones.
The protests – and others mounted with sporadic violence elsewhere in the West Bank – came after 100 border police with visors and riot shields used clubs and tear gas to drag out the dozens of settlers, some kicking and throwing stones, who had been in the building at the time.
As night fell, angry youths – some masked – stoned an isolated Palestinian house in an orchard below the evacuated building, which was lit up by fires started by protesting settlers who set alight the family's laundry and some of the orchard's olive trees.
The area remained tense as security forces jostled with crowds of mainly teenage settlers infuriated by Defence Minister Ehud Barak's decision to enforce a Supreme Court order on the settlers to leave the four-storey building which they had named "The Peace House".
Inside the building, still smelling of tear gas, a half-eaten meal on a plate testified to the surprise nature of the 45-minute operation which swiftly followed the breakdown of talks between Mr Barak and West Bank settler leaders seeking a postponement of the evacuation.
Hundreds of young settlers – some from elsewhere in the West Bank – had gathered in the area in previous days in an attempt to prevent the evacuation. Among the weapons they had intended to use was a potato embedded with nails which was found in the house. Police said that five settlers and two officers – one of them attacked with a chemical – had been injured during the operation. While this was the most determined evacuation of settlers since the March 2006 election, it still leaves around 800 people in the Hebron settlements, close to city's Tomb of the Patriarchs, sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Those settlements are illegal under international law but – unlike "The Peace House", occupied by settlers since March 2007 – are authorised by the State of Israel.
Despite the violent aftermath in which both Israelis and Palestinians threw rocks, the swiftness of yesterday's evacuation may cast doubt on the assumed difficulties of evacuating other settlers.
A prominent Hebron settler, Anat Cohen, who said her son had been injured as he was evacuated from the house, echoed many others in Hebron yesterday when she said: "This is a political move to promote Barak in the [forthcoming] election. He needs to raise the temperature. It is injustice, it is meanness."
Avsalom Peled, commander of the Hebron district police, explained that the initial absence of police from the orchard under settler attack by saying that officers in the occupied West Bank operated under the direction of the military. Having now secured the area near the evacuated building they would move against rioters in other areas.
Shortly afterwards a jeep arrived at the scene with officers armed with stun grenades.
Mr Peled said: "We achieved two targets here today. We acted to enforce the Supreme Court order. And we did it with the minimum of injuries."
Amid claims by settlers that Mr Barak had planned the operation before even meeting the settler leaders, the pro-settler Knesset member Uri Ariel said at the scene that Mr Barak had "cheated" those trying to devise a peaceful solution. "I am ashamed that the Minister of Defence needed to lie to Knesset members," he said.
But Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said: "In Israel the rule of law prevails and not the rule of the vigilante."Reuse content