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Israeli forces evict settlers in Hebron building

Some soldiers refuse order to participate

Israeli police officers carried a Jewish settler from a house during the evacuation of a house yesterday in Hebron. Forces used an array of power tools to penetrate the building. Officials said four soldiers, 14 police officers, and 12 settlers were injured. Israeli police officers carried a Jewish settler from a house during the evacuation of a house yesterday in Hebron. Forces used an array of power tools to penetrate the building. Officials said four soldiers, 14 police officers, and 12 settlers were injured. (BAZ RATNER/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JERUSALEM -- Pelted by rocks and chunks of metal, hundreds of Israeli riot police officers yesterday forcibly removed Jewish settlers from houses they had been occupying illegally for months in the West Bank city of Hebron.

The police said at least 15 people had been injured, 11 of them police officers. The settlers said 26 of their protesters had been treated for injuries. Five settlers were arrested for forcibly resisting a court order.

The scenes were reminiscent of some of the more violent episodes during the evacuation of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, when settlers and their supporters, many of them teenagers in masks and women, shouted insults and hurled large rocks, pieces of metal, soda bottles, slippers, shoes, and pots of cooking oil at Israeli police officers in riot gear.

The confrontation yesterday began at dawn, and grew more heated with the sun, as the police forced their way into occupied buildings that the inhabitants and their 200 or so supporters had welded shut and barricaded. The police were backed up by concentric circles of army troops that closed off the area.

The settlers, consisting of two families totaling 17 people, had moved back into Hebron's former Arab market, which Jews there said had been privately owned Jewish property before 1948. It is now owned by Palestinians. A third apartment was occupied overnight by protesters who barricaded themselves inside with flammable oxygen tanks.

When the mayhem was over, police officers stripped the apartments, putting furniture on moving vans and dismantling walls, windows and doors to try to prevent a reoccupation. A small part of Hebron is occupied by 650 Israeli settlers, living among thousands of Palestinians, under a 1997 deal with the Palestinian Authority.

In contrast to the way the Israeli army operates -- through quiet arrests of Palestinians during the night in the cities of the occupied West Bank -- the Israeli government gave the settlers significant notice. The relatively fierce confrontation served both the settlers and the government, creating heroes among the settlers and allowing the government to show to the world that removing the nearly 80,000 settlers who live beyond the separation barrier would not be an easy task.

The government can also show Washington and the more moderate supporters of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, that it is willing to confront settlers if necessary.

But more than the evacuation, Israelis yesterday debated the meaning of the refusal by a group of religious soldiers to participate in the operation. The soldiers are members of a program that allows them to serve in the army and also study in yeshivas, or religious schools. They consulted their parents and rabbis, who counseled many of them to call in sick or otherwise refuse orders to evacuate the settlers.

These rabbis believe, as they did about Gaza, that it is wrong to evict a Jew from his home in any part of the biblical land of Israel.

In the end, 12 members of the Kfir regiment of religious soldiers, including two company commanders, refused their orders and were immediately court-martialed, receiving sentences of up to a month in military jail.

Major General Gadi Shamni, head of the central command, said bluntly: "This phenomenon endangers the foundations on which" the Israeli Army "operates, being the people's army in a democratic state, which is obligated to carry out any mission given to it."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak said: "Any state that wishes to live can have only one army. Soldiers are given orders from their company and regiment commanders only and not from any other person, as respectable as he may be."

The liberal newspaper Haaretz warned that the "ideological refusal to evacuate settlers is no longer a marginal phenomenon," suggesting that more parents and rabbis were telling students to refuse, with support from some conservative politicians.

One of them, Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party, said the episode was a warning to the government that "if they try to harness the army for expelling Jews, they will remain with no army."

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