Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Israeli security forces used tear gas and stun grenades on Thursday to evict dozens of Jewish settlers and their supporters from a disputed building in the West Bank town of Hebron.
The settlers say they bought the building, but the Palestinian man who owned it said the deal was never completed. Last week, the Israeli supreme court ordered the settlers to leave while it decides who owns the building.
Based mostly on religious convictions, the settlers refused to budge. They insist that the land is Israel’s, and in recent days, they have engaged in bouts of stone-throwing and other mayhem with Palestinians who also claim the land for a future state.
Television images on Thursday showed Israeli soldiers hauling resistant protestors away. At least 20 people were reported injured. Palestinians reportedly joined the fray, throwing stones at the settlers.
Apparently fearing the trouble would spread, the Israeli army declared both the southern and northern West Bank a closed military zone late Thursday afternoon, except for those who live there and the press.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered Thursday’s evacuation after meeting with settler leaders earlier in the day in an attempt to defuse the crisis involving several days of scuffles between the settlers, Palestinians, and security forces.
Barak pledged to evacuate the building and post an army guard outside until the court rules on its ownership. He also said the youths that have clashed with Israeli security forces and Palestinians over the last week would have to learn a lesson about respecting the law.
The settler leaders wanted the army to hold off on the eviction until the court rules on the ownership of the building, reports said. They reportedly agreed to abide by the court’s decision.
Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said earlier that it is important to differentiate between the “brave settlers” in Hebron and the 100-200 “violent people” most of whom are outsiders, not settlers.
They are causing “enormous damage” to the 300,000 Israelis who live in settlements, he said in a radio interview.
Steinitz headed an earlier commission that investigated the bloody evacuation of Amona, another West Bank outpost, nearly three years ago.
Mounted police used clubs to bash Israelis settlers and others who were trying to prevent the demolition of new, empty homes in the settlement. The scenes of Israelis attacking Israelis were gut-wrenching for many here.
The commission concluded that police had used excessive force in Amona. Steinitz charged that those who throw stones at Israeli soldiers are in effect throwing stones at the State of Israel and should be put in jail.
The Israeli government encouraged its citizens to settle in the West Bank after the 1967 war, when Jordan lost the area to Israel.
Israelis who went to live in the settlements were hailed as pioneers and given financial incentives and government help to establish communities in the area that the Bible calls Judea and Samaria. They believe the land is part of the inheritance promised to them forever by God.
The Israeli government has been negotiating with the Palestinians over the future of the West Bank for years, and settlements are a key issue. The international community and the Palestinians are demanding an immediate halt to settlement building. Although Israel committed itself not to build new settlements as part of the road map to peace, it has continued to build in existing settlements to allow for natural growth.
Israel turned over West Bank cities, where most Palestinians live, to the Palestinians as part of the peace process in the 1990s, but Israel retook the cities there when terrorism spiked during the Palestinian uprising, which began in 2000 and continued for years.
At the height of the peace process in the mid-1990s, more Israelis might have been inclined to cede land to the Palestinians. That is less likely now, however.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party won elections in 2006, even after Olmert pledged to withdraw from more than 90 percent of the West Bank and uproot tens of thousands of settlers as part of his election campaign.
Until this past year, when settler violence has escalated, the settlers were always appreciated by most Israelis even if they didn’t agree with the settlers’ politics, said Mitchell Barak, an analyst and pollster.
“The settlement movement was seen as a good thing. These people were seen as modern day pioneers, like the continuation of the pioneers that founded Israel,” Barak told CNSNews.com.
But then came the “disengagement” of the Gaza Strip.
In an attempt to separate Israelis from Palestinians, Israel uprooted all 21 Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank – where some 9,000 Israelis lived – as part of a unilateral withdrawal in the summer of 2005.
While many Israelis criticized the move, those pushing for disengagement hoped it would bring a measure of peace and security to the area.
Many Israelis were willing to uproot the Gaza Strip settlements because of the promise of peace, the fact that it was an outlying area, and the perception that Gaza was not part of the Biblical Land of Israel, said Barak.
But that is not the case in the West Bank.
When you talk about uprooting settlements now, people remember the results of leaving Gush Katif,” said Barak. “We didn’t get peace and quiet. We got more terror attacks. We got more rocket attacks. We didn’t get anything we were really supposed to. So the point people are going to ask is, ‘Why are we doing this again?’"