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Israel Gets Tough in First Post-Sharon Move on Settlers

More than 200 people are hurt in a clash with Jewish protesters. Nine houses are demolished.

February 02, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

AMONA OUTPOST, West Bank — Israeli security forces used nightsticks and water cannons Wednesday to evict hundreds of rock-throwing protesters who had tried to save nine illegally built homes, the first major clash with militant Jewish settlers since Ehud Olmert became acting prime minister last month.

In the most violent such confrontation in memory, more than 200 soldiers, police officers and protesters were injured, including two members of parliament. The melee was covered live on Israeli TV for hours. By afternoon, authorities had cleared protesters from the outpost of Amona and smashed the houses with tractors.

Although the episode resembled the government's unilateral evacuation last summer of 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank, it was far more violent and appeared to represent a tougher policy on the settlers by Olmert. The move was freighted with political implications, coming less than two months before Israeli national elections set for March 28.

Chanting rooftop protesters poured acid, gasoline and paint onto soldiers and police officers below and hurled sticks and grapefruit-sized rocks. Helmeted officers, aided by front-end loaders and ladders, stormed the homes' rooftops and were seen clubbing the holdouts in a show of force that differed drastically from the generally more gentle treatment shown settlers during the Gaza evacuations.

In a sign of the government's resolve, about 6,000 soldiers and police officers took part in the Amona evacuation, about five miles northeast of Ramallah. Police said that force was nearly matched by protesters, who numbered as many as 5,000.

The scene at times resembled a miniature battlefield, with the injured being carried on stretchers one after another, bloodied and bandaged. A patch of gravel near the row of stone-sided homes became a makeshift triage center, where medics treated the injured on sheets of cardboard that bore pools of blood. Pungent black smoke curled from burning tires.

Military officials said at least 86 members of the security forces were among the injured. More than 40 people were arrested or held for questioning, police said.

By demolishing a portion of Amona and negotiating the evacuation of another site in Hebron early this week, Olmert has confronted the volatile issue of illegal outposts. He previously had ordered the army to come up with a plan for removing other such outposts in the West Bank, an effort long pushed by the Bush administration but largely avoided by the government of Ariel Sharon.

Sharon suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4 and remains comatose in a Jerusalem hospital.

Wednesday's action was widely seen as an effort by Olmert to position himself as the successor to Sharon for voters seeking a pragmatic course in defining more defensible borders for Israel.

Sharon and Olmert formerly belonged to the conservative Likud Party, which had been pro-settler until Sharon ordered last year's pullout from Gaza. Sharon defended the move in part as a way to reduce frictions with the Palestinians by ceding land that he said Israel had little chance of retaining in an eventual peace agreement.

Analysts said the decision to confront settlers reflected a new political reality propelled by the Gaza pullout and an erosion of public support for the settlers.

"After Sharon's breakthrough, Olmert discovered there is a handsome political payoff in this kind of action," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "People used to refuse to touch the settlers because they thought it was political suicide. Now it may be closer to political suicide for the government not to do this."

Ezrahi said it was noteworthy that the government went ahead with the evacuation just a week after the radical group Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Previously, he said, such a development on the Palestinian side might have rallied Israeli political leaders to the defense of the settlers.

The move in Amona followed a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that the enclave was illegal and must be dismantled. The court dismissed the final challenge early Wednesday.

Olmert, who also has taken leadership of the centrist Kadima movement that Sharon launched in November, has made it clear that he views violent disobedience by settlers, whose political clout has waned, as little more than law-breaking.

"Israel will uphold the rule of law and will not tolerate these disturbances and reckless behavior and the endangering of our security forces," said David Baker, an official in the prime minister's office.

Ronnie Bar-On, a Cabinet member running on the Kadima platform, declared that a government policy that often has been marked by leniency toward settlers, even those who engaged in violence, was a thing of the past. "The era of restraint is over," he told Israel Radio.

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