HEBRON, West Bank (AP) — Israeli security forces armed with sledgehammers, chain saws and power clippers smashed through the fortified doors of a building in the holy city of Hebron yesterday to evict two Jewish settler families and hundreds of supporters.
The military operation was meant to reduce conflict between settlers and Palestinians in the volatile West Bank town, but it also highlighted the growing schism between some religious soldiers and an army command that orders them to carry out evacuations that they deplore.
Settlers spit and hurled stones, water and oil as police, backed by soldiers, broke through the reinforced doors and dragged out the squatters one by one. Three settlers had sealed themselves inside a concrete bunker, and it took three hours to drill through a wall to reach them.
Danny Poleg, a police spokesman, said four soldiers, 14 police officers and 12 settlers were injured during the evacuation. Eleven settlers were briefly detained and two were arrested.
The scenes were reminiscent of the forced evacuations of thousands of settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank two years ago. Many of those settlers also resisted leaving and had to be dragged screaming and crying from their homes.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon, a key ally of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said last month that unlike the unilateral pullouts of 2005, a future West Bank withdrawal should be part of a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. He said he foresaw Israel pulling out of most of the West Bank, except for a few large clusters of settlements.
Such a pullout likely would enrage settlers, many of whom protested yesterday's action in Hebron.
Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, called the evacuation a "crime against justice and against Jewish history."
"I am sure we will return. Hebron has a long history and we will return," he said.
Hebron, a frequent flash point of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, is home to about 500 Jewish settlers living in heavily guarded enclaves among some 160,000 Palestinians. Clashes between the sides are frequent.
Jews lived in Hebron for centuries until they were driven out by Arab riots in 1929. After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, fundamentalist Jewish nationalists led the move to resettle Hebron.
Israel now controls the center of the city, including a disputed area that is holy to both Jews and Muslims — the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. Its large military presence often hinders the movement of Palestinians.
Palestinians control the rest of Hebron.
The two-story building evacuated yesterday stands in the downtown marketplace, which the army shut down in 1994 after Jewish militant Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians in a shooting spree at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The settlers initially moved into the structure — a vacant store — more than six years ago, evacuating and re-entering it as the case made its way through the Israeli court system.
Israel's Supreme Court ruled in April that the settlers' presence there was illegal, but they ignored orders to leave. Hundreds of supporters moved into the building in recent days, reinforcing the doors and windows with metal and concrete in preparation for the raid.
The operation followed the highly publicized refusal of several Orthodox Israeli infantry soldiers to take part in the evacuation. The army sentenced a dozen soldiers, including two commanders, to brief jail terms for the rebellion.
The eviction of settlers has fed a growing schism between the army command and religious conscripts, many of whom serve in combat units. Tensions spiked during Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in 2005 and again the next year when Israel uprooted part of an unsanctioned West Bank outpost.