HEBRON // Fayez Rajabi does not quite know what to make of being in the middle of a controversy that spilt over into violent demonstrations on Thursday when about 250 Jewish settlers were removed from his house in the centre of Hebron. "On the one hand I am happy that the settlers are gone," said the 45-year-old car dealer in front of the house to which he has not been able to gain access for more than a year. "On the other hand, I am very sorry for what happened to the families here."
Thursday's evacuation marked the culmination of a 20-day stand-off between settlers and the Israeli army that started after a Nov 15 Israeli High Court ruling ordered the house to be vacated. Settlers had taken over the newly built but still empty house over a year-and-a-half ago, and Mr Rajabi, who bought the land 15 years ago, had pursued the case through the Israeli legal system with the help of a local non-governmental organisation.
For weeks, hard-line settlers had arrived from across the West Bank and taken over the area immediately next to the Kiryat Arab settlement in Hebron, vandalising gravestones with graffiti at a Muslim cemetery next to Mr Rajabi's property and painting anti-Muslim slogans on the walls of a mosque. The evacuation itself passed off relatively peacefully, but settlers subsequently rioted in the area and throughout the West Bank, throwing stones at locals and setting fire to cars and houses.
One Palestinian was shot at close range by an armed settler and two others were wounded in similar circumstances while a soldier was injured when acid was thrown in his face. The case was widely seen as a test of strength between right-wing settlers and the Israeli army, which rarely confronts settlers. Under the US-brokered 2003 road map, the basis of the Annapolis process launched last year, Israel is committed to removing what it itself defines as illegal settlement outposts. Yet Israel had removed only one major outpost before Thursday, in 2006. Under international law, all Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal.
"Both [settlers and the army] scored points," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. The Israeli army successfully evacuated the building, he said, but Israeli settlers set a high price tag by engaging in a "pogrom" of nearby Palestinian areas. "I am not sure you can point to a winner." About 7,000 settlers live in Kiryat Arba not far from the centre of Hebron while 400 live in five small settlements in the heart of the city among 125,000 Hebronites. The Hebron-area settlers are mostly ultranationalists who believe they have divine entitlement to the land. Hebron is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, or Abraham's tomb, holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli army doctor who perpetrated the Hebron massacre in 1994, killing 29 worshippers at prayer in the Ibrahimi mosque, was from Kiryat Arba. His grave site has become a place of pilgrimage for hard-line settlers from across the occupied West Bank. On Saturday, the area was quiet. An Israeli major at the location, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it had been important for the army to "restore security" to the Palestinian families living nearby. He would not be drawn on whether the army expected more violence.
Locals certainly did. "I think it will get worse," said Kayed Dana, 43. He said settlers would riot again and added that normally the Israeli army did little to protect Palestinian families in the area. "Every day it is bad." Mr Dana, five brothers and their families all live in three houses on a few thousand square metres of land inside an army checkpoint that marks the edge of Kiriyat Arba. Every day, he said, was a struggle, with settlers commanding the streets and intimidating him and his relatives.
"I don't put glass in my windows any more, they only break it." His children, he said, had often been targeted. His five-year-old son had received burns on his hands on Thursday, when settlers set fire to their house, while his 85-year-old mother was still in hospital as a result of smoke inhalation. Mr Dana said his family, like all the families in the area, had prepared themselves by filling buckets of water to douse any fires.
"This is not a life," said his brother Fadel, 33. "The land is my great-grandfather's and I will never leave it. But we don't have a life. No one wants to marry into our family because of the situation we live in, and it will never improve as long as these settlers are here." On a flying visit, Rafiq Husseini, the chief of staff of the office of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said the Palestinian Authority would pay damages to all families whose property was damaged on Thursday.
"There can be no peace while settlers remain on any part of Palestinian land," Mr Husseini told reporters at the site. Locals agreed. "There will be no peace while these people are here," said Mr Rajabi. He paid tribute to the Israeli army for removing the settlers from his house but said normally they acted only to protect settlers. "This my house and this is our land. I would rather they demolished this house stone-by-stone than have settlers live here."