Now it's class war in Israel as evictions pit Jew against Jew

Patrick Cockburn on the village where the poor have taken the law into their own hands
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It looks like a battle between Israelis and Palestinians. Hundreds of police with vizored helmets fill the streets of a village. Doors are smashed in. One woman threatens to blow herself up rather than leave her house.

"I know every rock and tree here since I was a child," says one villager. "If you left me here at night with a blindfold I could still find my way home. This is our land."

The surprise is that the protestors speak Hebrew. The village at the centre of the battle is Mevasseret Zion, just west of Jerusalem on the road to Tel Aviv. Today the Israeli cabinet is to discuss how the government should deal with the 300 Israelis who have taken over 93 homes and defy all efforts by the police to get them out.

The dispute touches some of the rawest nerves in Israeli society, exacerbating deep ethnic and social cleavages. The people of Mevasseret Zion are mainly oriental Jews who came from Morocco and Kurdistan in the early 1950s. Most hold unskilled or semi-skilled jobs. They speak resentfully of the wealthy "Ashkenazi [European Jewish] establishment". In one occupied house a man, who refused to give his name, said: "They [the Ashkenazi] don't say hello to us. They treat us like animals."

The owner of the land, the Jewish Agency, has no doubt what should be done. The occupied houses belong to its absorption centre in Mevasseret Zion, where immigrant Jews live for six months on arriving in Israel. "We want the police to put them out," says Eldar Adar, the spokesman for the Jewish Agency. "This is our property. We want it for new immigrants. Some of these people are criminals and drug addicts."

The police have tried once. Two months ago, after years of protest, people without their own homes in the village started taking over Jewish Agency houses. "We did it smartly," says Avi Levy, 35, a driver with two daughters. "We suddenly moved in 100 families so it was difficult for the police to do anything about it."

All the occupiers came from Mevasseret Zion and had been living with their parents or, in some cases, were homeless. For several weeks there was a stand-off, but on 2 July the police attacked. Some occupiers threw fire bombs, while others threatened to blow themselves up by setting fire to their domestic gas tanks. Some 17 people were injured and 20 arrested. "What you see in Hebron was only 20 per cent of what happened here," says Mr Levy. "The police even broke down the door into my mother's bedroom, though she wasn't there."

The mass eviction had limited effect. For a week occupiers lived in tents and cars before moving back into the houses. The steel doors put in place by the Jewish Agency were little obstacle, since many of those trying to break in were construction workers. The agency then appealed to the High Court to ask the police, with an answer due this week, why they had not succeeded in recovering the houses.

Social differences have grown in Israel over the last 20 years, but in few places are they as visible as at Mevasseret Zion. There are, in fact, two communities living on top of each other. One is the old village with attractive single-storey houses where the original Jewish immigrants live. The other is a new township of luxury red-roofed villas in which live some of the richest members of Israel's political and business elite.

Pushing his baby in a pram down the street in the old part of Mevasseret Zion, Ovad Abudbul, 33, a building worker, whose wife is a cleaner, points to the luxury development 300 yards away. He says: "If I and my wife worked for 200 years we might be able to get the money to buy a home there." At the other end of the village a new mall with a cinema and a McDonald's has been built. Mr Levy says: "The mall is for us to see and others to use. Go there and see if you can afford it. Breakfast costs 30 shekels [pounds 6]."

Israel vies with Ireland as one of the most inegalitarian of developed countries. The boom of the 1990s largely benefited the richest 20 per cent. In last year's election this badly damaged the Israeli Labour party in the poorer towns and cities and helped Benjamin Netanyahu become Prime Minister. Most people in Mevasseret Zion say they voted for him, but they express cynicism about most politicians. "In the two months before the election they offer you their daughters and their sisters," says Mr Levy. "After the election you never hear from them."

The bitterness in Mevasseret Zion has another source. The people know the land there has become some of the most expensive in Israel, and suspect the Jewish Agency of hoping to sell it. "They want to get this place in order to make a fortune out of it," says Haim Oz, an elected leader of the occupiers, who is a stage manager for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. "They want us out."

At the Jewish Agency Mr Adar stoutly denies that it has any plans to sell off the houses. He admits, however, that the agency does have "the intention to transfer it [the absorbtion centre] to our pension fund", and the fund would only benefit if it was possible to sell the land at market prices. The people of Mevasseret Zion may well be correct in their suspicion that the agency would not be sorry to see them replaced by luxury villas.