Hundreds of Israeli police in riot helmets and flak jackets dragged about 250 Jewish settlers from a Palestinian building Thursday in the West Bank city of Hebron, the first major test in two years of the government's readiness to dismantle the dozens of illegal outposts that have complicated peace negotiations.
The operation ended a several-week standoff between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israelis who claimed to have purchased the building from Palestinians. The dispute had come to symbolize the government's inaction in the face of growing lawlessness and brazenness of an emerging Jewish settler fringe movement.
Settlers seeking to deter future withdrawals of illegal outposts and Jewish towns in the West Bank had threatened a violent response to the evacuation. Indeed, clashes spread to other places in the West Bank, where Palestinian homes were attacked and fields set ablaze. In Jerusalem, sympathizers blocked roads.
In recent months, settlers have adopted a doctrine of retaliation for any outpost evacuation or attacks by Palestinians.
Despite warnings from Mr. Barak and other politicians that the evacuation could spark wider clashes between settlers and security forces, the settlers were removed in a little over an hour with only two people suffering moderate injuries, Israeli TV reported.
"The operation was much easier than the politics surrounding it," says Akiva Eldar, who coauthored a history on the settlement movement.
"This is a message from the settlers, that this is just an introduction to what will happen if the government decides to sign an agreement to remove 80,000 settlers. This is just one building."
Some 600 soldiers and policemen took over the house in a surprise operation and quickly began dragging out the people inside.
Young boys and girls scuffled with police, punching and hitting soldiers. Security forces used stun grenades and tear gas to repel the settlers. Many settlers barricaded themselves inside and hurled rocks, eggs, and chemicals at their evictors.
The evacuation came at a sensitive political juncture. The violence threatened to destabilize Hebron – a flash-point city where Palestinians live in close proximity to Jewish settlers – just a few weeks after police reinforcements from the Palestinian Authority (PA) deployed to reestablish law and order and hunt down militants.
Meanwhile, Barak was dogged by accusations by the settlers that the evacuation was ordered to boost his badly ailing Labor Party at the outset of an Israeli parliamentary election campaign.
In the past week, as settlers escalated clashes with Palestinians and security forces, Israeli political leaders began to complain that security forces had allowed a fringe group of vigilantes to make their own law in the West Bank. That followed months of settler attacks on Palestinians throughout the West Bank, as well as occasional clashes with Israeli security forces.
"There was no choice for us," Barak told reporters. "The distance between the provocations of recent days and complete anarchy is the width of a hair."
Under the US-sponsored peace process with the Palestinians, Israel has committed to evacuating about two dozen unauthorized outposts in the West Bank.
Settlers at the Hebron house are hoping that their resistance will deter future evacuation operations.
In March 1997, about 150 Jewish settlers moved into the partially finished four-story building, claiming to have purchased it from a local Palestinian. But the Palestinian owner disputed that claim, and the police eventually ordered settlers to vacate the property.
The settlers' legal challenge to the eviction notice was rejected by Israel's Supreme Court in November.