x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Clashes part of political struggle

Israel is bracing for more violence after hard-line Jewish settlers angry at being evicted from a disputed house in Hebron went on a rampage.

TEL AVIV // Israel is bracing for more violence in the West Bank in the coming days after hard-line Jewish settlers angry at being evicted from a disputed house in the flashpoint town of Hebron went on a rampage against Palestinians late last week. Following the evacuation of the four-storey Hebron building on Thursday afternoon, extremist settler youth shot and injured three Palestinians, set fire to Palestinian houses, fields and cars and hurled rocks at them. On Friday, young Palestinians burned tyres and threw rocks at Israeli soldiers in Hebron, while 2,000 Palestinians participated in a protest in the Gaza Strip organised by Hamas - the militant group that rules Gaza - against the settler violence. Robert Serry, the UN's Middle East envoy, said in a statement he was "concerned about the potential for a further escalation of a tense situation".

The eviction and settler violence that followed marked one of the most high-profile power struggles between the government of Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, and the increasingly violent extremist fringe of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967. For the Israeli government, criticised for not doing enough to curb the growth of Jewish settlements in the territory - considered illegal under international law - the removal of the settlers from the house was a test case showing how willing it would be to repeat such operations in the future to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state. For the settlers fighting to remain in what the Israeli media has dubbed the "house of contention", the backlash was part of their "price tag" policy, under which they exact revenge for any attempt to force them to surrender land in the West Bank.

The evacuation followed weeks of tensions in Hebron, after an Israeli High Court decision on Nov 16 ordered settlers to vacate the building within three days or face a forced eviction by security forces. The settlers in the building - including families with young children joined by dozens of young supporters - ignored the deadline and many threatened to react with violence to any attempt to remove them.

Using tear gas and clubs, about 120 helmeted Israeli police wearing full riot gear cleared dozens of settlers from the building on Thursday afternoon in an operation that took less than an hour to complete. Israeli television stations interrupted regular programming to broadcast footage of the eviction, showing police forcing out young settlers - both men and women - and carrying many kicking and screaming by their arms and legs out of the building. Young women were shown throwing objects and pouring liquid such as dishwashing detergent from the higher-floor windows of the house on police outside. One young woman donning a head covering pointed to the security forces as she was interviewed by Channel 10 TV and shouted, "They are Nazis! This is shameful!"

Just hours before the police arrived at the building, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, met with settler leaders to try to negotiate a peaceful handover. But no agreement was reached, and military commentators reported that Mr Barak wanted to take advantage of the fact that fewer people than usual were in the house at the time - Israeli media estimated them at fewer than 200 - because many did not expect an eviction so soon after talks with Mr Barak took place. The evacuation was relatively quick and appeared to take the settlers by surprise.

The settlers claim they purchased the building legally from its Palestinian owner, who has denied selling it. According to the settlers, the disputed building is of strategic importance because it overlooks the road linking the nearby Kiryat Arba Jewish settlement to the Cave of the Patriarchs - a site in Hebron whose links to Abraham make it holy for Jews, Muslims and Christians - and could provide security for Jewish worshippers.

Arieh Eldad, a right-wing Jewish parliamentary member, accused Mr Barak of carrying out "an act that's contemptible both morally and politically". Referring to the plunging popularity of Mr Barak's Labor party in polls ahead of February's national elections, Mr Eldad said "Barak is trying to win some points from the Left. The minister of defence knew he had at least two more weeks to negotiate a peaceful evacuation."

While most Israeli media and many left-wing and centrist politicians praised the security forces for evicting the settlers, they also criticised the government for not doing enough to prevent settlers' violence from escalating. Haim Ramon, the vice prime minister and a member of the ruling Kadima party, told Channel 10 TV the Israeli government hasn't "yet decided" how to act against the group of mostly young and extremist settlers across the West Bank.

"This group can't be handled with normal means. They are a type of Jewish terrorists that act against the state of Israel." Daniel Friedmann, Israel's justice minister, said on Friday "it was obvious what would happen after the evacuation, and I'm sorry for the fact that the security forces weren't prepared to prevent the pogrom against the Palestinians by Jewish rioters". vbekker@thenational.ae