Israeli police, using sledgehammers, chain saws and power clippers, stormed a building in the biblical city of Hebron early Tuesday and dragged out hundreds of Jewish settlers who had holed up there illegally.
Settlers spit and hurled stones, water, oil and cement powder as police, backed by army troops, broke through fortified doors and carried out the squatters one by one. Three settlers sealed themselves inside a concrete bunker built for the standoff.
“This is a crime against justice and against Jewish history,” said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers. “I am sure we will return. Hebron has a long history and we will return.”
Danny Poleg, a police spokesman, said four soldiers, 14 police officers and 12 settlers were injured during the evacuation. Eleven settlers were briefly detained and two arrested.
Hebron, a frequent flashpoint of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, is home to about 500 Jewish settlers living in heavily guarded enclaves among some 160,000 Palestinians. Clashes between the sides are frequent.
Israel controls the center of the city, including a disputed area that is holy to both Jews and Muslims — the traditional burial site of the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. Its large military presence often hinders the movement of Palestinians.
The Palestinians control the rest of Hebron.
Police called pro-Hamas
“You’re Hamas people!” one woman screamed repeatedly at Israeli police while being dragged from the scene. The reference was to the radical Islamic Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip and is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
After forcing open one of the building’s doors, police encountered 30 youths singing songs who cursed the soldiers as they entered. Many sat atop a 4-foot-high concrete bunker in which three settlers had barricaded themselves. It took police three hours to bore through the neighboring wall to remove them.
The two-story building evacuated Tuesday stands in the central marketplace, which the army shut down in 1994 after Jewish militant Baruch Goldstein opened fire at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and killed 29 Palestinians.
The settlers initially moved into the structure — a vacant store — more than six years ago, variously evacuating and re-entering it as the case made its way through the Israeli court system.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled the settlers’ presence there was illegal, but they ignored orders to evacuate. Hundreds of supporters moved into the building in recent days, reinforcing the doors and windows with metal and concrete in preparation for the raid.
Settlers claim the property was owned by Jewish families for decades until Jordanian authorities seized it after the 1948 Israeli war of independence. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967.
Tuesday’s operation came as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is reviewing a proposal whereby his country would cede territory to the Palestinians under a final peace accord in order to hold on to major West Bank settlements, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
The Israeli land would be meant to compensate the Palestinians for the roughly 5 percent of the West Bank occupied by Jewish settlement blocs, the newspaper said. The architect of the plan is Israeli President Shimon Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1993 interim peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, Haaretz said.
A spokesman for Peres, Yoram Dori, did not deny that a land trade proposal has been submitted to Olmert. “I don’t know of a plan that has all of the details that are given in the article,” Dori replied when asked to comment on the Haaretz report.
He added that Haaretz had incorrectly reported that the president proposed giving up land where Israeli Arab communities currently stand.
Haaretz said Olmert has not rejected the proposal’s main concepts, but the prime minister’s office issued a statement expressing “amazement at this erroneous article.”
“Such a plan has not been considered, nor is it being raised for discussion in any forum,” the statement said.
Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in early 2001 following the launch of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have met several times in recent months to discuss issues related to the peace process, the most recent talks happening Monday in the West Bank town of Jericho.
Israel agrees to the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the two sides are deeply divided over what the borders should be. Israel wants to annex the West Bank settlement blocs while Palestinians want Israel to withdraw from all of the territory, captured along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war.