Riot gear troops clash with Israeli settlers

Thousands of troops in riot gear clashed today with hundreds of stone-throwing Jewish settlers holed up behind barbed wire and on rooftops in this illegal West Bank settlement outpost of Amona.

It was the first forced evacuation of Jewish settlers since last summer's pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, and came after the Supreme Court cleared the way for the demolition of nine homes at the site.

The violence on par with the most dramatic scenes of the Gaza pullout. Dozens of people were evacuated with injuries. Both settlers and policeman were among the wounded, with police saying 31 of their officers had been hurt.

The evacuation was seen as a test for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who has said he would act with determination against settlers violating the law. Olmert is widely expected to withdraw from more areas of the West Bank and dismantle additional Jewish settlements, whether unilaterally or in a deal with the Palestinians, if elected prime minister in March elections.

About an hour into the confrontation at Amona, troops had reached the first home and began tearing down window shutters with crowbars. They dragged out protesters through the windows, as settlers dropped paint balloons and stones on them from above.

Troops then climbed up a ladder to reach rioters barricaded on a rooftop, with settlers pushing the troops back with sticks and hurling eggs and sand at them. Other troops stormed the roof, riding on the shovel of a bulldozer, and began forcing the settlers into the shovel and bringing them down.

Later, a bulldozer started tearing down the first of the nine structures earmarked for demolition. By noon, three of the structures had been demolished.

In all, some 5,000 demonstrators, including 1,800 extremists holed up in the nine buildings, were being forcibly removed, and police said at least 40 people had been arrested.

Thick black smoke from burning tires rose into the air. Across the outpost, settlers pelted troops with stones and rocks, paint-filled balloons and eggs. Club-wielding soldiers on horseback charged into the crowd and water cannons tried to push back protesters.

A field clinic was set up to treat the wounded, and people milled about with their heads wrapped in bandages and wearing T-shirts splattered with blood.

"This conflict has to end with one bottom line, that we enforce the law against the rioters," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Army Radio.

David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office, added: "In Israel, the rule of law is paramount and the security forces are implementing that today."

Two right-wing members of parliament were injured in the clashes. Effie Eitam, a legislator from the far-right National Union Party, stood among the protesters with blood streaming from his forehead.

"They are treating people here like Arabs," said legislator Arieh Eldad in a telephone interview from the scene with Israel Radio. Eldad said he suffered a broken arm.

Troops began moving into the outpost after Israel's Supreme Court cleared the last hurdle to the evacuation Wednesday morning. Under the court order, nine homes built illegally on private Palestinian land are to be demolished. Several more temporary structures have been set up on state land.

Israel Yitzhak, the Israeli police commander in the West Bank, said he hoped settlers would not try to provoke the troops. "I hope they do not force us to use the means at our disposal," he said. "I hope they will allow us to act. If they resist, we will use force."

Since the mid-1990s, settlers have established dozens of unauthorized outposts to prevent the transfer of disputed land to the Palestinians. The Palestinians hope to set up a state in areas Israel captured in 1967, which include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Under the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, Israel has committed to dismantle about two dozen outposts but so far has taken little action. Amona is north of Jerusalem, near the Palestinian town of Ramallah.

About 6,000 Israeli security forces were mobilized to forcibly remove opponents to the demolition of the nine structures at Amona.

The army set up roadblocks Monday to prevent large-scale infiltrations into Amona. By Tuesday morning hundreds of opponents of the evacuation — most of them teenagers — had flooded into the hilltop community and the nearby settlement of Ofra.

Several youths laid barbed wire and cement blocks on the roofs of some of the nine permanent buildings in the outpost where they apparently planned to resist evacuation.

Last week's electoral sweep by the Hamas militant group, capturing a majority of parliamentary seats in the Palestinian territories, was expected to encourage Israel's go-it-alone approach to defining its future borders.

West Bank settler Uriel Shub, 18, said tensions during Wednesday's evacuation were "much worse" than last summer's Gaza pullout but said settlers have no choice but to take a tough stand.

"If there is no resistance, the withdrawals will continue," said Shub, who was injured in the elbow.

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