Does Hebron clash signal new round of settler revolts?

Last week's violence in the West Bank reveals just how far ultranationalist Jewish settlers have gone beyond the control of the Israeli government and army.

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP
Dissent: Israeli police and soldiers removed 250 Jewish settlers during the violent evacuation of a disputed house in the West Bank city of Hebron last week.
Rich Clabaugh/STAFF
Ilene R. Prusher/The Christian Science Monitor
In Hebron, Abeer A-Razem (l.), and her sister-in-law Zeinab Jabari put slats of cardboard boxes outside the windows of their home to deflect rocks thrown by Israeli settlers.

The violence here last week that started with the Israeli army evacuating ultranationalist settlers from a disputed house was captured on film and broadcast around the world. One thing it made clear for many was the extent to which extreme right-wing Jewish settlers have gone beyond the control of the Israeli government and army.

There are differing story lines that describe exactly what happened, but what isn't in dispute, because it was recorded on video, is this:

Soon after the army and police began dragging settlers and their supporters out of the house – alternatively called the "House of Contention" and the "House of Peace" – young Jewish men from the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba came pouring into the area. Along the way, they targeted Arabs living nearby.

Husni Matariyeh, a Palestinian quarryman who lives between the two places, was shot by one of the masked settlers. His father was shot, too.

The younger Mr. Matariyeh, just home from the hospital, says settlers ordered him and other family members, who were outside watching, to go inside their homes.

"I told them, 'Get out. This is my house.' They tried to make us prisoners in our own homes," explains Matariyeh, sitting with family members on his porch that sits in clear view of the disputed settler building.

"They always threw stones. But they never shot at me like this," he says. "The settlers want to force us out, because we're between Kiryat Arba and that house, and if they can get us out, they can have this whole strategic piece of land."

David Wilder, spokesman of the settler community, says that people here are angry because Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli army led them to believe there would be a compromise over the house before any forcible evacuation.

"We decided that we would not initiate a violent confrontation, but there were kids that were not able to control themselves," he says of the attacks on Palestinians.

Settlers say the building was bought for $1 million from a Palestinian. Regardless, most view it as an expansion of the already controversial, long-problematic presence of Jewish settlers in Hebron, which has been a flash point before of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

"We'll be back," he says of the house they were expelled from. "The fact that the building is in a strategic location, and gives the [Israeli Defense Forces] a view of the whole area, makes it important."

He says that settler youths, still feeling furious at the government over its decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005, are disillusioned and acting out. "We never justified that," says Mr. Wilder. "We don't believe in going out and shooting innocent people."

But that sort of action is happening, and many here are expecting it to happen again.

Simcha Shmuelevitz, 17, says that if the army keeps coming in to arrest people, there will be a palpable backlash. "Sure, guys are upset. The expulsion was for no reason at all," says Simcha, who wears side locks poking out from under his skullcap and an orange scarf around his neck – a symbol of protest against the removal of any settlers from disputed land.

Hebron is a city that is complicated at its core. Jews and Muslims regularly pray here at the tomb of their common forefather Abraham. Jews call it the Cave of the Patriarchs and Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque. To suppress the chances for violence, there are separate entrances to the holy site. The city itself was divided into Israeli and Palestinian-controlled sectors in 1996, leaving just about everyone miserable with the results.

While some Israeli leaders condemned the attacks perpetrated by Jewish extremists – which included setting fires to Palestinian homes and cutting down trees – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday compared it to a "pogrom."

Some say the move to evacuate the settlers was a preelection ploy. Israel faces parliamentary elections in February, out of which will come a new prime minister and a new government.

The big question now is whether growing settler violence will lead to a more radical or moderate direction for the Israeli right.

On Monday, members of the right-wing Likud Party were going to the polls in primaries to choose a new leader. The toss-up is between Benjamin Netanyahu, the hawkish politician who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and Moshe Feiglin, a harder-line, religious figure who is closer to the settlement movement.

Israel's decision to yank settlers out of the disputed house gave some Palestinians a sense that the army was able to take control of settlers who have been dominating their lives.

"We appreciate that the army threw them out. I don't see that any Arab army has been able to do that," says Mussab Jabari, who lives across the street from the evacuated building. He has covered his windows with cardboard slats to protect against the rocks thrown at the house. "Last week, we saw the good side of the Israeli soldiers," he says. "There's a change in their attitude toward the settlers."

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