Israel Strikes Back At Jewish Protests On the West Bank
JERUSALEM — THE Israeli government has won its first confrontation with about 130,000 West Bank Jewish settlers campaigning to thwart the extension of Palestinian self-rule.
The evacuation of about 600 of some 1,500 protesting Jewish settlers from a hilltop they had occupied for 12 days raises the question of whether the settlers have the resources to overwhelm the police and Army and thus win the sympathy of a significant section of Israeli public opinion.
About 213 settlers, including 70 minors, were arrested and several demonstrators - including a Holocaust survivor - were injured while being dragged by soldiers and police.
The settlers, who account for only 3 percent of Israel's population, say that the handing over of the West Bank violates their Biblical claim to the land and will undermine Israel's security.
They eschew violence because they regard the Israeli Army as their ally and insist that their fight is with the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They hope to win public sympathy for their cause by portraying the government as acting callously against fellow Israelis.
''The settlers are adopting the model of the Palestinian intifadah,'' says Hebrew University political scientist Yoran Ezrahi, referring to the sustained Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 and succeeded in embarrassing Israeli authorities and winning international support for the plight of Palestinians. Mr. Ezrahi said that Israeli security forces had acted with maximum restraint, because unlike the intifadah, the settlers were using nonviolent methods.
''The settlers have equal determination, and their inspiration comes from the same source - religious fundamentalism,'' Ezrahi says. ''But in the long run, I don't think they have the resources to sustain this kind of campaign. And the moment an Israeli soldier or policeman is wounded, they will lose the little sympathy they have.''
There were several remarkable aspects to the first serious showdown between the settlers, who had occupied a hilltop situated between the settlement of Efrat and the Palestinian village of Al-Khader near Bethlehem, and Israeli soldiers and police.
First, it took hundreds of police and soldiers, including paratroopers, to remove the demonstrators from the hilltop of Givat Hadagan.
Second, Efrat is considered one of the most moderate of the West Bank settlements.
Third, it was the largest turn-out of settlers at such an event for some time. The restrained civil disobedience of the settlers severely tested the orders to police and soldiers to use maximum restraint.
It was only when reinforcements arrived later in the day - and the security forces resorted to tougher methods - that they managed to clear the protesters from the hill.
Public reaction in the Israeli media indicated little sympathy for the settlers among secular Israelis, who account for the majority of the population.
The right-wing Jerusalem Post, an English-language daily, focused its coverage on the ''brutality'' of the police and soldiers and the discomfort of the police in having to confront settlers who they are more accustomed to protecting from stone-throwing Palestinian youths.
Haaretz, Israel's leading daily, quoted a soldier involved in the evacuation as saying that he would rather serve in Lebanon than confront his own people.
Under the next phase of the settlement, currently being hammered out by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, major West Bank towns will be handed over to the Palestinians and some 15,000 Palestinian police will replace Israeli soldiers, a prospect settlers fear most.
The hilltop is state land, but the settlers claim that they obtained rights years ago to the land to expand the Efrat settlement. Palestinians insist that all Jewish settlers should be removed from the West Bank.
The future of the settlers is to be determined in final status negotiations due to begin in May next year and to be completed by May 1999.
Among those arrested was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a well-known figure among American Jews with the reputation of a moderate. Before he was arrested, he told the soldier overseeing the evacuation: ''We want this to be a symbol. We will not raise our hands against you, but by the same token we will not go willingly.''
By nightfall of July 31, several dozen settlers had managed to scramble up two other hilltops.
''I think you will see a quantum leap in protest from the right-wing now,'' says Jay Shapiro, a settler from the West Bank settlement of Ginot Shomrom, who was manhandled by police at a demonstration last month.
Mr. Shapiro said right-wing anger was fueled by a 59-to-59 vote July 29 in the Knesset (parliament) on handing back the Golan Heights, which gave the government a technical victory, and the July 31 detention of the head of a right-wing radio station operating from a ship outside Israel's territorial waters.
But Amiram Goldblum, a leader of the Israeli pro-peace movement Peace Now, which is against the presence of settlers on the West Bank, says that Israeli police and soldiers had been far too soft on the settlers: ''Imagine if the Palestinians had done something similar ... what kind of force would have been used against them?'' Mr. Goldblum says that tear gas had been used in the past against Israeli Peace Now demonstrators.
He says that the government had other options to use against the settlers. The most potent would be to offer those who were prepared to leave the West Bank a comprehensive compensation package.
''This would divide the settlers and defuse the kind of demonstration