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Israel police evict settlers from West Bank building

Two Jewish families in Hebron and scores of backers are dragged off. Some in the army had refused to offer backup.

August 08, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli police with sledgehammers and chain saws broke into a fortified building in the West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday and dragged out more than 200 spitting, stone-throwing Jewish settlers who had defied a court order to leave.

The violent showdown in the center of the city, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims, sparked debate in Israel over the source of authority for its army.

Seven army officers and soldiers were disciplined Monday for refusing, on religious grounds and with rabbinical blessing, to serve as backup for the police operation.

Police said four soldiers, 14 police officers and 12 settlers were injured during the four-hour struggle. Five settlers were arrested.

Scores of Jewish settlements dot the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel supports most of them, although none are recognized as legitimate under international law. The vacant two-story shop in Hebron's long-shuttered central market was one of more than 100 additional settler outposts that the Israeli government considers illegal and has promised to dismantle.

Prodded by the Bush administration, Israel has resumed peace talks with Palestinian leaders, who are demanding withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and troops from the West Bank, which they want as part of an independent state.

The clash in Hebron was a sign of the difficulties Israeli leaders would face in committing themselves to such a pullout and carrying it out.

Not since Israel ended a 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip, withdrawing its soldiers and settlers nearly two years ago, has the army faced a collective rebellion by religiously motivated soldiers.

In Gaza, the army disbanded an entire company that refused to take part in evicting the settlers, who balked at leaving what they considered Jewish land.

The army avoided further insurrection by sending only handpicked officers to lead the operation.

The eviction in Hebron, where police carried crying children from the banned settler outpost, was reminiscent of emotional scenes during the removal of settlers from Gaza.

Jewish settlers in Hebron are among the most militant in the West Bank. Nearly 700 settlers live there in heavily guarded, Israeli-sanctioned enclaves among 150,000 Palestinians, near a disputed area revered as the burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The unauthorized occupation of the vacant store by two families began six years ago. The settlers say Jews had owned the shop before Jordan captured the West Bank following Israel's founding in 1948. After a series of legal challenges, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the building vacated, and scores of other settlers moved in to help the two families barricade their quarters against the expected police raid.

When the army's Kfir Brigade got orders Monday to back up the police, more than 20 soldiers called their rabbis and parents for advice. Some were told they had to follow the orders, while others were advised to take sick leave to avoid charges of insubordination.

Seven members of the brigade, made up mostly of Orthodox Jews, refused outright to obey orders. A military tribunal sentenced six of them, including three company commanders, to jail terms of two to four weeks. The other was given probation.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier and a former prime minister, warned that refusing orders undermined the strength of a nation that requires most of its young men and women to serve in the military.

"Any state that wishes to live can have only one army," he told reporters Tuesday. "Soldiers are given orders from their company and regiment commanders only and not from any other person, as respectable as he may be."

The settlers' defenders, including rabbis and right-wing members of parliament, said the Torah, which commands Jews to settle "the land of Israel," justified the soldiers' insubordination.

"Inserting soldiers into political disagreements will lead to the destruction of the army," said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. "And giving soldiers orders that completely contradict their conscience is a crime."

Arnon predicted that the settlers would soon be back in the vacated building.

"Hebron has a long history, and we will return," he said.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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