Israeli troops and police on Thursday stormed a disputed building in the West Bank city of Hebron, one of the region's most explosive hotspots, dragging out 250 settlers in a raid meant to send a tough message to Jewish extremists fighting to keep what they see as God-promised land.
But they responded with a wave of attacks against Israeli forces and Palestinians, even as Israeli politicians and even settler leaders denounced them.
After battling soldiers with fists, kicks and chemicals, the settlers — many of them teenagers led by a radical from another part of the West Bank — rioted in Hebron, setting fires near at least two Palestinian houses. Nearby, frightened Palestinians cowered in their houses as settlers pelted the buildings with rocks. Jewish children went on a rampage, breaking windows. Meanwhile, Palestinians on rooftops threw rocks at the settlers and Israeli forces below.
About 35 settlers and soldiers were hurt in the battle. Rescue workers and Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital said one settler was moderately wounded, and the others were lightly injured. Palestinian hospital officials said 17 Palestinians were wounded, including five from bullets.
The Israeli rights group B'Tselem released video that appeared to show a settler shooting a Palestinian in the stomach from point-blank range, and Palestinians pelting the settler with rocks.
In other parts of the West Bank, settlers threw rocks at Palestinian vehicles and burned an olive grove, Palestinians said.
The Palestinian governor in the Nablus region, Jamal Moheisen, warned that if Israeli forces did not bring its settlers under control, "we will call on the Palestinian residents to go out to the streets and fight back."
In a statement late Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned that "violent elements" who try to attack Palestinians would "face a quick, stern response from security forces."
After nightfall, settlers were still scuffling with Israeli forces in front of the disputed building.
Thursday's action at the structure the settlers named the "House of Peace" was the first major one on the West Bank since Israeli troops removed sections of the Amona outpost in February 2006. Dozens were injured at that time.
Settlers attempted to go back into the four-story building, but soldiers, who cleared the structure in just 20 minutes, formed a human chain to keep them from doing so.
More than 100 unauthorized outposts
This confrontation has been brewing for years, and the violent reaction of extremist settlers suggested it might not be the last.
Settlers have built more than 100 unauthorized outposts on West Bank hilltops, but despite promises to the U.S, Israel's government has failed to take them down, instead building roads and providing services for some of them.
Though the government tried to quell the extremists with its swift assault on the Hebron building on Thursday, the response from a group that says it answers only to God is likely to be further defiance. With the backing of rabbis in the settlements, they believe God gave the West Bank to the Jews, and no one has the right to take it away.
Hebron is a crucible of the most extreme religion-driven settlers, and the only place with settlers and Palestinians in the same city.
About 600 live in Israeli-controlled enclaves in the middle of Hebron, home to 170,000 Palestinians. Clashes between the two sides are frequent. Hebron settlers say openly they want all Palestinians expelled from the city, which they claim because it is the traditional burial place of the biblical Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and three of their wives. Muslims claim it for the same reason.
Yet many of the most violent young Jews came to Hebron from other parts of the West Bank, including their leader, Daniella Weiss, a firebrand from in the northern West Bank. Weiss has led shrill opposition to efforts to rein in the most aggressive settlers for decades, backing their creation of dozens of rump settlements on hilltops to try to prevent an Israeli pullback and creation of a Palestinian state.
"Daniella Weiss and her gang should leave Hebron," said Pinchas Wallerstein, director of the Settlers Council, just hours before the evacuation. "They don't belong there," he told Israel Radio, in an appeal for calm that was ignored.
About 275,000 Jewish settlers live among 1.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel wants to hold on to major blocs of West Bank settlements in a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians, offering to trade Israeli territory for about 10 percent of the West Bank.
Dragged out, punching and hitting
Some 600 soldiers and police took over the house in a surprise operation and quickly began dragging out the people inside one by one, their hands and legs held by teams of two or four officers. Settlers, including young girls, punched and hit soldiers. Others threw acid, police said.
Security forces in full riot gear used stun grenades and tear gas.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he ordered the army to evict the settlers after all attempts to persuade them to leave peacefully failed. Barak met with settler leaders earlier in the day, but they failed to reach an agreement.
Settler leaders reacted angrily to the army raid.
"This could have been done peacefully and legally. Instead Barak chose violence," said Danny Dayan, leader of the Settlers Council. "This surprised us completely."
Settlers moved in to the house in March 2007 after claiming they bought it from a Palestinian. The Palestinian denies the claim, and Israeli authorities have not recognized the sale as legal. Israel's Supreme Court ordered the house evacuated last month.