Israeli police target settlers in Hebron riots

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Israeli riot police yesterday moved in force into the heart of the West Bank city of Hebron in an effort to curb rioting by Jewish settlers and prevent them attacking Palestinian properties.

The move, which followed several days of sporadic violence by settlers, was ordered by police and army chiefs as they sought to assert control in the run-up to the court-ordered eviction of eight Jewish families squatting in Palestinian properties in the city's old vegetable market.

It came as doubts still lingered over the Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for a week today because of continuing and sharp disagreements between Israel and the Palestinian leadership over the latter's complaint of intimidation against the campaign in East Jerusalem.

The standoff in Hebron between security forces and the settlers, some of the most hard line in the West Bank, is being seen in Israeli media and political circles as an early, if limited, test of the authority of the new acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over extreme right wing groups.

On Sunday settlers, some masked, broke into a group of closed Palestinian market stalls, scattered the stock and set fire to one shop before hurling stones which smashed windows in two inhabited Palestinian houses bordering the small settlement of Avraham Avinu, one of four in central Hebron.

Police have arrested 13 mainly young settlers in the past four days in clashes which followed the issue of eviction notices saying the settlers would be evicted from the vegetable market by Febuary 15. The notices were the first concrete move against the squatters who have occupied the premises illegally for over three years. Dozens of police wearing visors and riot shields, part of a new special patrol of 250 ordered into the city, moved into the Avraham Avinu settlement and forced their way onto rooftops ordering settlers to leave them. One middle aged woman in a crowd which quickly gathered after the police arrived shouted at a senior officer: "A week after the eviction notices were issued [Ariel] Sharon got a stroke. The same will happen to you."

David Wilder, spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said that the area had been completely quiet yesterday morning until the police arrived and added: "The police have lost their marbles. They are acting illegally and they have entered private properties without the proper authority."

Mr Wilder said he still hoped that the evictions from the vegetable market, which was on "Jewish land", would be avoided but warned that if they were attempted "everything up to now will be child's play by comparison." Asked if he was condoning violent protest Mr Wilder said he was not saying what form the opposition would take but added: "They won't be kissing and hugging the people trying to move them as they did in [the Gaza settlements of] Gush Katif."

Police said yesterday that the reinforcements would remain "as long as necessary." But assuming that the squatter families are evicted, the premises appear highly unlikely to revert to their Palestinian tenants. The military's civil administration served notice of the Palestinian Hebron municipality this month that they were also ending the protected tenancy agreement under which the stores were leased to Palestinians.

As negotiations on the election in East Jerusalem continued last night, Palestinian officials said despite Sunday's Israeli Cabinet decision to allow voting in the city they had had no written assurance of the sort given in the last legislative council election in 1996 that East Jerusalem voters would not lose their Israeli-granted ID if they voted.

The officials also said Israel had not yet said it would permit voting on already printed ballot papers listing Hamas candidates. Israel has made several arrests of candidates and campaigners in East Jerusalem, the highest profile of whom Mohammed Abu Tir, the number two Hamas candidate, was released yesterday. "We regard this as massive intervention in our democratic process and extremely unhelpful to the future of that project," a senior Palestinian official said.

* Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's family told doctors yesterday that he twitched his eyelids, but hospital officials said it's too early to say whether the movement is a sign of recovery from his devastating stroke.