HEBRON, West Bank — It looked like a modern-day version of a medieval siege: Israeli paramilitary border police wielding batons and shields burst from vans, charging their way into a house in this tense, divided city.
The violent eviction last Thursday ended one standoff between Jewish settlers and the Israeli government but spurred another.
After more than 200 settlers were hauled away from the cavernous four-storey building by security forces using stun grenades and tear gas, dozens of settler youths fanned out across Hebron attacking Palestinians and setting olive groves ablaze. One settler shot two Palestinians outside their family home. The footage was broadcast by Israeli TV stations.
Earlier in the day, David Wilder, a spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish community – an island of several hundred Jews living in fortress-like compounds in the midst of more than 150,000 Palestinians – warned that the house’s evacuation would not pass silently. He spoke as Israeli police nearby scuffled with a group of teenage girls during the final throes of the evacuation of the disputed house.
“The people here were brutal,” Wilder said of Israel’s police. “And I think there will be a price to pay for it.”
The notion of exacting a price for evacuation of settlers in the West Bank is the cornerstone of a new policy by some radical Jewish settlers to spread mayhem in response to any eviction attempt by the Israeli authorities. Dubbed “price tag,” the policy aims to spread thin and exhaust Israeli security forces.
At stake is nothing less than the future of the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinian state, settlers say, with some determined to oppose any Jewish withdrawal from the Holy Land – by force, if necessary.
“We are ready for battle and we are getting ready for battle,” said Baruch Marzel, the leader of a settlers’ resistance committee overseeing events at the disputed house, shortly before last Thursday’s evacuation. “This battle is very important to us, because it’s about the whole of the Land of Israel.”
Inside the house, called Peace House by the settlers, police uncovered a stockpile of blocks, bricks, potatoes spiked with long nails, and containers of acid and turpentine. Caught by surprise, the evacuees didn’t have time to use much of their arsenal.
Settlers say the house belongs to a Jewish buyer who purchased it for $1 million and claim to have the documentation to prove it. But the Palestinian who sold the house to its Jewish owner – Morris Abraham, a New York businessman – says he reneged on the deal once he learned the buyer was Jewish. Israeli police say the settlers’ sales contract is forged.
Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the settlers should leave the house until the question of forgery can be sorted out, and the court ordered Defence Minister Ehud Barak to begin an immediate eviction.
Members of Barak’s office met with settler leaders, who asked that families be allowed to stay in the house and other individuals evacuated. In return, the settler leaders offered to abide by a recent court decision allowing the house to be held temporarily, even if the court eventually rules to evict the settlers completely. Barak rejected the offer and said that only after the evacuation could alternative solutions be discussed.
Rabbi Moshe Levinger, considered the father of renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron, met with Barak and offered a number of alternatives. After conferring with military officials, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel Defence Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and senior police commanders, Barak authorized the incursion.
The home’s tenants, along with the hundreds of youth who had come to support them, said they were surprised by the speed of last Thursday’s evacuation and that it came without warning.
“We were in shock,” said Aderet Shuavel, 24, her year-old son sleeping on her in a sling. “We had been sitting together eating lunch, and suddenly they jumped out of vans and burst into the house.”
In her hand, Shuavel held an onion to help ward off the sting of the tear-gas-filled air. Just a few steps away from her, in the shadow of the house, scuffles between police and settlers continued. Ponytailed girls in long skirts clung to boulders on the side of a dusty hill, refusing to be escorted away.
Unperturbed by the chaos surrounding her, Shuavel sounded a defiant note: “We will return. We will not be broken.”
At the house, the police dragged out the settlers through the home’s large, red metal doors, many of the settlers thrashing and shouting. Above them was a huge poster with the word “criminals” displayed above the faces of Barak and Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch.
Barak defended his actions, commending the security forces for their work.
“A defence minister in Israel has no choice but to ensure that the law is upheld – without that we won’t have a state,” he said. “We are only a hair’s-breadth from utter anarchy.”
Following the evacuation, Israel boosted security forces throughout the West Bank. About 500 police were positioned around the West Bank city, where 600 settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians.
With files from Ha’aretz