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 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 store 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 for an independent state.
The clash in Hebron was a sign of the difficulties Israeli leaders would face in committing to and executing such a pullout.
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 hand-picked officers to lead the operation.
The eviction in Hebron, where police carried crying children from the banned settlement, 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 settlement by two families in the vacant store began six years ago. The settlers say Jews had owned it 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.