A bloody clash Thursday between Israeli settlers and Israeli police in Hebron could mark the beginning of violent Jewish resistance to a proposed Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank under a peace accord.
Israeli riot police used clubs and stun grenades to evacuate hundreds of settlers from a building on the edge of the town. The settlers responded by attacking Palestinian property. More than two dozen people were injured, among them 18 Israelis and seven Palestinians.
The unusual use of force by Israelis against Israelis and subsequent attacks on Palestinians underlined the growing brazenness of a settler fringe that apparently hopes to deter future evacuations under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The squatters sought to dramatize their evictions from a four-story building they occupied 18 months ago and had dubbed "the peace house" by wearing Jewish stars and calling the Israeli forces "Nazis."
"This is a genuine act of villainy," said Orit Struk, a spokeswoman for the settlers. "They're sending expulsion forces to fire gas at babies."
Though the evacuation ended in less than an hour, the violence that followed appeared to surprise Israeli forces. Israel Radio reported that soldiers didn't intervene when settlers attacked a Palestinian house with stones and destroyed a satellite dish.
A city holy to Muslims and Jews, Hebron has long been a tinderbox because it is the only Palestinian city in which Jews have established a settlement. About 500 Jews live under guard amid 170,000 Palestinians.
The military declared the area around the house a closed military zone Wednesday after settlers threw rocks at Palestinians and desecrated Muslim cemeteries.
"There was no choice for us," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters after the evacuation. "The distance between the provocations of recent days and complete anarchy is the width of a hair."
Frustrated that mostly nonviolent protests during Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza made evacuation too easy, a small group has promised more determined resistance this time.
"The state of Israel needs to understand that just like when you fire 1,000 workers and they go protest in anger and burn tires, here people are being thrown out of their house," said Uzi Sharabaf, a rabbi leader of the settlers at the house. "So people are emotional."
The foot soldiers of the movement are in their late teens and their 20s, and many live in illegal hilltop outposts. Depicting the Israeli government as in cahoots with the Palestinians, the settlers say the battle for the biblical land of Israel is to be fought by any means necessary - a justification for attacks on Israeli soldiers and innocent Palestinians.
"[Gaza] was child's play," warned Noam Arnon, a representative of settlers in Hebron. "It can get out of control. ... I speak about the way of resistance."
Earlier this week, Israeli President Shimon Peres warned that the evacuation of the house could spark a civil war. Mr. Barak predicted it could stir up civil disobedience throughout the West Bank - what some are dubbing a settler intifada or uprising.
The settlers say they have broken with the more moderate leadership of the Yesha Council.
"The council lost its right to serve in any capacity after Gush Katif," said Daniella Weiss, referring to a bloc of 17 settlements evacuated in Gaza. "They are out of the game and outside of the leadership," said Miss Weiss, a leader of the residents in the disputed house and a longtime settler activist.
Pinchas Wallerstein, a former head of the Yesha Council, called the behavior of some of the "House of Peace" residents counterproductive.
"I think Daniella Weiss hates the settlers' council a lot more than the Palestinians," he said. Her "approach is that we want to scare the army and the government not to mess with us. The Yesha Council's approach in every struggle is to reach out to public opinion in Israel. ... We won't allow the injuring of Israeli soldiers in any way, and we won't assume the image of rioters."