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Israeli Army Meets Resistance in Removal of Settlers

Melee erupts during eviction. Conservatives criticize government over the timing.

October 21, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In a melee of flying fists and shouted abuse, Israeli soldiers and police dragged recalcitrant Jewish settlers off a West Bank hilltop Sunday, demolishing metal shacks the settlers had set up in an attempt to lay claim to a rocky, remote patch of land outside the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The confrontation set off bitter recriminations within the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with the defense minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, coming under fire from conservative and religious elements in the governing coalition over the method and timing of the eviction.

Israelis across the political spectrum were troubled by the spectacle -- seen in TV footage that led national newscasts, and was aired over and over again -- of soldiers and settlers coming to blows, Jew pitted against Jew. For many, that was a vision fraught with painful overtones, coming during the season when Israelis commemorate the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultranationalist Jew.

Trouble had been brewing for days at the dusty hill known as Havat Gilad, or Gilad Farm, one of more than a dozen settler outposts branded illegal by the government. The army has been moving to dismantle these uninhabited offshoots of larger settlements, which sometimes consist of little more than a rusting trailer or two, but troops encountered significant resistance at Havat Gilad, which was set up in memory of a settler who was slain in May.

Soldiers and settlers had skirmished intermittently last week, but the standoff came to a head Saturday night when troops moved in just after the Jewish Sabbath ended, setting off a fracas in which about two dozen people were injured.

On Sunday, some observant Jews in Sharon's government denounced military leaders for having violated religious law by mobilizing their troops before the Sabbath had drawn to a close.

Army operations considered necessary to save lives are exempt from Sabbath rules that prohibit the use of motor vehicles and machinery, among other things, but conservative critics said evicting the settlers was clearly not a matter of life-and-death urgency.

Sharon's conservative infrastructure minister, Effi Eitam, heaped scorn on Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister, whom he blamed for the timing of the troops' deployment.

"Is he so stupid that he doesn't understand an operation starting on Saturday night and involving masses of soldiers will lead to mass desecration of the Sabbath?" Eitam said.

When soldiers and police returned Sunday to demolish remaining metal shack-like structures, about 1,000 settlers and their supporters staged a furious show of resistance, setting fire to dry scrubby brush, hurling paint at military vehicles, blocking bulldozers with their bodies, and screaming pleas and insults at the Israeli troops.

"You are the PLO army!" some of the protesters shouted. A female settler, in long skirt and head covering, sobbed as she beseeched the soldiers to desist. Choking clouds of dust rose into the air as men scuffled and wrestled on the barren hillside.

One soldier who was wearing a yarmulke was set upon by members of the crowd who tore at his epaulets and yelled at him, "Take off your kippa!" Women and girl settlers taunted female troops, shouting, "I hope your mother sees you on TV and is proud of you!"

At the catcalls, tears sprang to the eyes of some of the young female soldiers.

Troops destroyed the outpost's remaining metal shacks and withdrew, but a milling crowd of several hundred angry settlers and supporters had returned to the site by late Sunday.

For many here, the Havat Gilad confrontation was a reminder of the divide between religious and secular Israelis -- a long-standing social chasm that has receded somewhat from the public consciousness during the last two years of bloody conflict with the Palestinians.

Before the intifada began, public opinion polls routinely showed that many Israelis considered the religious-secular clash to be as great a threat to the state as the conflict with the Palestinians.

Sharon apologized for the violation of the Sabbath, but in a rare rebuke to the settlers, warned extremists against taking on the police and the Israel Defense Forces.

"Any attack on the IDF, the security forces or the police is an attack on the rule of law, and should be firmly condemned and prohibited," the prime minister was quoted by Israeli media as telling his Cabinet.

Because military service is mandatory in Israel, virtually everyone has a son, a sister or another relative who has served or is serving in the ranks, and ordinary soldiers enjoy an extremely high degree of public support, even when military policymaking is called into question.

Ben-Eliezer was more blunt in his criticism of the outpost's defenders, saying they were engaged in an "insurrection."

"We, as citizens of this country, shouldn't forget for even one second that soldiers defend them day and night, on the Sabbath and on holidays," he said.

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