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Israel Seals Hebron Settlements

Part of the West Bank town is shut to outsiders in an effort to quell days of Jewish protests. It is a rare step for the government to take.

January 17, 2006|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The Israeli army announced Monday evening that it was sealing off Jewish settlements in the West Bank town of Hebron, where hundreds of settlers and their supporters have rioted for the last several days over a government order to vacate an illegal Jewish enclave.

The move represents a sharp escalation in the army's ongoing confrontation with the protesters, and it places acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on a collision course with militant settlers.

Until now, their fury had been aimed primarily at the stricken prime minister, Ariel Sharon, 77, who remains unconscious and in grave condition after suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4.

The army's decision to declare the Hebron settlements a closed military zone was reminiscent of the weeks leading up to last summer's evacuation of the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip, where hundreds of young right-wing activists converged on the areas slated to be uprooted, vowing to resist with force.

In recent days, young settlers wearing masks have been clashing with Israeli troops in Hebron's casbah, or old town, throwing stones and paint bombs, scuffling and cursing and setting fires.

Several dozen settlers have been arrested.

Declaring a closed military zone is a rare step for the army to take against Israeli Jews. Usually such declarations are put into force when the military is facing what it considers serious unrest in Palestinian areas.

The decree prevents anyone but residents of the settlements from entering.

About 500 settlers live among 150,000 Palestinians in Hebron, one of the most volatile pockets of the West Bank.

The old market district in the city center has become a ghost town in recent years, with approximately 20,000 Palestinians having fled their homes because of clashes with settlers and near-constant military curfews, according to Israeli human rights groups.

The military decree, signed by Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, commander of troops in the West Bank, cited "violent riots and incidents of public disorder" by settlers who have targeted Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians alike. The order will remain in force until at least Sunday, the army said.

The unrest broke out after the government disclosed plans to remove eight Jewish families who had taken over Palestinian-owned buildings in the old market.

The evacuation order might not be enforced for some weeks, but authorities said police would immediately begin removing hundreds of settler youths who had taken part in the rioting. As many as 1,000 police and soldiers will be involved in the operation, officials said.

Israeli police have been welding shut the doors of shops broken into and vandalized by the youths.

The settlers in turn complained of police brutality and insisted that their takeover of the buildings was within their rights.

Earlier Monday, Olmert told members of his Kadima Party that the government would not tolerate settler violence against Israeli troops.

"There are lines we cannot allow them to cross," he said.

As expected, Kadima on Monday designated Olmert acting head of the recently formed centrist party.

Olmert, who is Sharon's deputy and a former mayor of Jerusalem, had in effect assumed the party leadership together with Sharon's duties as prime minister -- tasks he was expected to continue at least until elections March 28.

Jewish settlers as a bloc once wielded enormous political power in Israel. But though many Israelis sympathized over the summer with the Gaza evacuees, there was widespread condemnation of a hard core of mainly young settlers who put up a violent struggle.

The army used a combination of overwhelming troop strength and negotiations with rabbis and settler leaders to overcome the resistance.

Still, there were several chaotic and drawn-out standoffs, most of them at synagogues, during the course of the withdrawal.

Authorities have acknowledged that similar scenes could play out in Hebron.

Meanwhile, Sharon's family members, who have been keeping a vigil at his bedside, told doctors Monday that the comatose leader had briefly opened his eyes after they played a recording of his grandson's voice. But hospital officials warned that it could have been an involuntary fluttering of the eyelids. Doctors did not witness the movements.

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