Rabin takes on the zealots of Jericho: Israeli Prime Minister signals he will use force if necessary against rabbis refusing to vacate synagogue

AS ISRAELI soldiers massed outside the Jericho synagogue, armed rabbis inside were debating the law: Can a Jew kill another Jew in self-defence? Does the Bible say a Jewish settler may gun down a Jewish soldier, for the sake of Eretz Israel?

'We are not allowed to kill a Jew but we can kill a non-Jew who will threaten us,' said Adam, a Romanian-born rabbi.

'Our Bible says: 'Make sure you kill a man before he kills you first.' I would kill an Israeli soldier. It would not bother my conscience. I personally believe any soldier receiving orders to evict us should refuse. They should launch a military coup to oust Rabin.'

These words were spoken by desperate men, as the sun set over their synagogue, and over all of Eretz Israel (Greater Israel).

Two weeks ago Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, ordered the eviction of a group of 15 militant religious Jews, who, for four years, have inhabited an ancient Jewish synagogue near the centre of Jericho. Mr Rabin's decision was a practical one - the synagogue is situated on land which is to be handed over for Palestinian self-rule, and the settlers are a major obstacle in the current peace negotiations.

The eviction order, however, was also highly symbolic. It has demonstrated to religious Jews throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip that their power is no longer, and that withdrawal from what they describe as 'biblical Israel' is now not ruled out. Recent attempts by other settlers to lay claim to new sites all over the West Bank have also been blocked by the Israeli army. Mr Rabin has promised that he will not 'uproot' settlers, in the first stage of the peace talks. But that is precisely what he is doing in Jericho - albeit from a synagogue.

Although Mr Rabin has made assurances to religious leaders that the synagogue holy site will be protected in future, he wants the settlers themselves to leave. They are being given time to go voluntarily, but Mr Rabin has signalled that he is prepared to use force.

This week a settler demonstration to protest over the Jericho eviction was banned and yesterday the settlers challenged the ban in the Israeli courts.

As the verdict was awaited, leaders of the once great settler movement arrived at the synagogue to show solidarity and crowds were bused in from nearby Jewish communities. But by nightfall the soldiers outnumbered settlers by two to one.

Inside the synagogue, the rabbis talked about retaliation. As they checked for trouble, soldiers entering the synagogue donned skullcaps. But there was little desire for confrontation.

'Jewish law shows saplings should be sown well apart. If they are planted too close together their roots intermingle and their health is damaged,' said a young religious student.

Mr Rabin has never had any time for religious settlers. As soon as he was elected, the Prime Minister attempted to marginalise such settlers - terming their communities 'political' rather than 'security' settlements, and saying that true Zionism should not be judged by expansion of territory.

Today, almost five months after the signing of the Gaza-Jericho accords, Mr Rabin has undercut the settlers' popular support, preparing the ground for the day when they must be evicted for good. That task began this week in Jericho. By nightfall the news had come through that the court had upheld the demonstration ban. Police and soldiers cordoned off the protesters from the synagogue and set up roadblocks - normally reserved for Palestinians - to check settler cars.

Whatever Jewish law may say, it seems, in this case, Mr Rabin has Israeli law behind him.

(Photograph omitted)