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Settlers Clash With Troops Dismantling Outpost

Dozens are hurt in the confrontation in the West Bank, which pits Israeli against Israeli and, in one case, brother against brother.

June 20, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers clung to a rocky West Bank hillside, exchanging blows, shoves and angry words Thursday with Israeli soldiers who were deployed for the first time to evacuate a populated settlement outpost as part of Israel's obligations under an American-backed peace plan.

The daylong confrontation under a hot sun occurred on the eve of a visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, which is aimed at shoring up the troubled peace plan. It left dozens injured and at least 20 settlers under arrest -- even though both sides tried to keep the confrontation from spinning out of control.

In televised scenes that sent a ripple of distress through Israel, the battle pitted Israeli against Israeli and brother against brother -- literally, in one instance.

One of the several hundred radical young settlers resisting the removal of a scattering of tents and a ramshackle building from a hillside dubbed Mitzpe Yitzhar, an offshoot of the nearby Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, greeted his soldier brother, who arrived as part of the army contingent charged with clearing the area. Then the two went back to their respective battle lines.

While troops and settlers engaged in their struggle over the remote hilltop in the northern West Bank, Israelis mourned the latest victim of a Palestinian suicide bombing -- a shopkeeper and father of six who died when the bomber blew himself up early Thursday in a grocery store in the Israeli farming community of Sde Trumot near the boundary with the northern West Bank.

The death of Avner Mordechai, 63, triggered an anguished appeal from his son, Dror. The bomber was identified as a Palestinian teenager from the nearby West Bank village of Yanoun, dispatched on his mission by the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad.

"Take a good look at my mother," the younger Mordechai said on Israel Radio, addressing the bomber's mother. "You lost your son, my mother lost her husband, we lost our father.... How long can we continue this way? All this blood, suffering -- it is too much."

In advance of Powell's scheduled visit to Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the West Bank city of Jericho to meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, discussions have been taking place in recent days between Israelis and the Palestinians, and between the Palestinian Authority government and Palestinian militant groups. No breakthroughs have been reported.

Israeli and Palestinian security officials have been trying to come up with a formula under which the Palestinians would assume responsibility for policing a violence-prone swath of the northern Gaza Strip, and Israeli troops would pull back from the area. Palestinian militant groups including Hamas have used northern Gaza as a staging ground for firing homemade rockets toward Israeli towns.

Palestinian officials are worried that they will be handed the responsibility for keeping order in northern Gaza and then find themselves unable to halt the rocket attacks -- which have continued throughout an extended Israeli military clampdown in the area.

Complicating any security hand-over in northern Gaza was last week's string of Israeli missile strikes at Hamas targets in Gaza, part of a spate of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli attacks killed six Hamas operatives, wounded senior leader Abdulaziz Rantisi and destroyed a storehouse that Israel said was used for the group's crude Kassam rockets.

Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, has been trying to secure a temporary cease-fire with the militant armed factions. Palestinian officials and Israeli media reports say he has made an overture to the militant groups, offering them a voice in his government. No details have been released, and there has been no direct response from Hamas. However, Hamas and the other militant groups are seeking assurances that the wave of Israeli assassinations will stop, at least for the time being. Israel has been unwilling to make such a guarantee.

The day's violence at Mitzpe Yitzhar, the settlement outpost, continued until after nightfall, when troops finally secured the area and settled in for the night. Seeking to block the evacuation, the settlers -- many of them from a radical faction known as the "hilltop youth" -- burned tires, erected makeshift barriers and threw wild punches at the troops trying to drag them away.

Some of the settlers tried repeatedly to clamber atop an army armored personnel carrier and were wrestled off it by soldiers. The settlers, who included women, danced in circles and prayed aloud in between scuffles with the troops, raising clouds of pale dust and sometimes weeping with fury.

"Who cannot cringe at the [army] using APCs ... to evict Jews from their land?" asked a settler named Yehuda Lipner. "How can anyone not balk at the sight of Jewish brothers against Jews?"

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