MIDEAST ISRAEL PALESTINIANS
Tara Todras-whitehill  /  AP
A Jewish settler scuffles with an Israeli border police officer as she is arrested near a disputed house in the West Bank town of Hebron on Wednesday.
updated 12/3/2008 3:11:47 PM ET 2008-12-03T20:11:47

Escalating aggression from a group of extremist Israeli youths holed up in one of the West Bank's most explosive flash points — a disputed house in the biblical city of Hebron — approached a boiling point Wednesday as Israel's government vowed to evict them.

Israel called in 300 riot police to rein in the young settlers, who hurled stones and debris at both the Palestinians who surround them and the Israeli soldiers who guard the four-story structure the settlers have named the "House of Peace."

Black stars of David daubed on Muslim gravestones nearby, the smashed windows of a Palestinian home and a wall tagged with a spray-painted Hebrew word for "revenge" were evidence of the dangerously increasing violence around the building.

On Wednesday, the teenagers prayed, played guitars and hung out aimlessly when they weren't pelting soldiers and Palestinians with stones and paint-filled balloons.

Israeli media reported that Defense Minister Ehud Barak would meet with settler leaders Thursday to try to settle the dispute. Barak's office would not confirm the reports.

Interviewed on Channel 2 TV Wednesday evening, Barak said he would continue talking to settler leaders, but there would be no compromise over evacuation of the building. "The Supreme Court has made a decision, and that decision will be implemented," he said. "Israel is a nation of laws."

Ownership in dispute
The building is a settler enclave in a city where some 500 Jews live under military guard among 170,000 Palestinians.

Settlers moved in without government authorization early last year. They claim they purchased the property from a Palestinian, who admits he was going to sell them the building but says he changed his mind. Israel's Supreme Court ruled last month that the settlers should be evicted until a different court decides who the rightful owner is.

It remains unclear when, or if, the government will act. The West Bank is dotted with around 100 unauthorized settler outposts that Israeli authorities have not touched.

Video: Opening Israel's ‘Door for Hope’ Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed Wednesday that the court's decision would be implemented. "Once the Supreme Court has ruled that a specific structure should be evacuated, it will be evacuated. I will not allow anyone to challenge Israeli democracy," he said.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said paramilitary border police, better trained for riot control, will replace soldiers on duty in the area. Security officials estimated that 300 border police would be deployed.

'This land is our land'
Settlers say about 20 families live in the building, but the population appears to fluctuate between a few dozen and a few hundred, in keeping with the rumors of impending evacuation that periodically send people rushing in from nearby settlements to resist.

The teenagers, whose average age appeared to be around 16, share a fetid portable toilet outside and seem to live off peanut butter, chocolate spread and boiled eggs provided by a nearby Jewish seminary.

In a large room with bare concrete walls and air heavy with the smell of unwashed bodies, youths rolled up bed mats as others performed their morning prayers.

One sign hung on the building invoked the Biblical patriarch Abraham, whose purchase of a burial plot in Hebron is seen by the settlers as the root of their historic right to the entire city. Another paraphrased the folk singer Woody Guthrie: "This land is our land."

Some of the girls wore T-shirts that read, "There will be war over the House of Peace."

Two dozen people were injured when settlers and Palestinians threw rocks at each other Tuesday, including a 16-year-old Israeli who was hospitalized with a serious head injury. After settlers also threw stones at troops, they took the relatively rare measure of using stun grenades against Israelis.

Clashes with police
On Wednesday morning, three settlers who appeared about 12 years old and were disguised with cat masks threw stones at army Jeeps and at Palestinian children walking by the building on their way to school. No one was injured.

Later in the day, youths clashed with riot police near the building, hurling paint-filled balloons, and tried to break into another Hebron property claimed by settlers before being blocked by police.

The attacks on security forces drew condemnations from Israeli leaders. "We must be clear," President Shimon Peres said Wednesday. "If someone throws a stone at a soldier, it is as if he is throwing a stone at the state of Israel."

One young teenager with the long sidelocks of Orthodox Jews seated outside the house said he wasn't in school because "some things are more important."

A friend, a boy wearing a knitted black skullcap, said their goal was to eventually "kick all of the Arabs out of Hebron."

Like all of the teenagers at the building, they were distrustful of the news media and refused to give their names.

Fear of spreading violence
David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers, said the violence was a result of the government's actions, which made people "very upset."

The violence threatens to spread. Two Palestinian villages in another part the West Bank reported settler rampages before dawn Tuesday.

An Arab resident of east Jerusalem was stabbed and wounded early Wednesday. Rosenfeld said the man claimed the assailants were Jewish, but that the circumstances remained unclear.

At the Hebron building, a bearded teenager handed an AP reporter a printed page claiming that a Hebron Jewish group stabbed the man in response to the wounding of the 16-year-old the day before. "Jewish blood is not worthless," read the note.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Israel bring the situation under control.

"The Israeli government must understand that it has a duty to stop these thugs who continue to attack Palestinians. We hold the Israeli government responsible," Abbas said Wednesday.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Protests in the West Bank

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