MITZPEH YITZHAR, West Bank - They saw the army coming, and the civilians took every delaying action they could: Mothers pushing baby carriages stood in front of an army bulldozer, youths used hot coals to barricade a road, while others burned wheat fields and vineyards to create a smoke screen.
It was the Israeli army they saw, and the civilians were Jewish settlers, and after four hours of bloody fistfights and skirmishes the soldiers succeeded in tearing down three tents and a scattering of wooden shacks - the first inhabited, unauthorized Jewish outpost to be dismantled by Israel as part of a U.S.-backed peace plan.
Hundreds of Jewish settlers had converged on this hilltop in the northern West Bank, but military might prevailed in the end. The 400 soldiers and police, most of them unarmed and acting with marked restraint, accomplished their mission.
Some soldiers had a tape deck, and the theme song from the movie Mission Impossible blared from their jeep - a pointed summation of the day.
"We understand that we can't stop the army," said Noa Ariel, 38, who lives at a permanent settlement adjacent to the outpost. "But we can make it such a nightmare that they will think twice about doing this again. We won't let it be easy."
Ariel has lived in the West Bank for more than two decades. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she recalled, "told us to come to the hills, that what you catch is yours. So we came. And now he is kicking us out."
The U.S.-backed "road map" to peace requires Israel to dismantle more than 60 unauthorized settlements as a show of good faith. Palestinians view the outposts as barriers to creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Sharon's government allowed, and even encouraged, the outposts to flourish. Many inhabitants regard them as sacrosanct, built on land they believe was deeded to the Jewish people by God.
Israel dismantled the first outposts June 8, all of them uninhabited trailers. Yesterday marked the first time that Sharon's government has dealt with an occupied outpost. And it was a small step. The established settlement of Mitzpeh Yitzhar has four outposts, some with wooden homes built atop concrete foundations and occupied by seven families.
The army yesterday targeted only one of the four, the smallest, which was created within the past year by 10 young men living in tents.
Dror Etkes, who heads the Settlement Watch Team for the left-wing advocacy group Peace Now, called the dismantling of Givat Yitzhar "very insignificant." Only a handful of people lived there, but others had moved in when they found out that the outpost was on the list to be dismantled, he said.
"The government is doing more than it did last week," Etkes said. "It's definitely the beginning of something, but whether it is something that will continue beyond today is too early to say."
`A show by Sharon'
Etkes was skeptical, noting that the army had acted a day before a scheduled visit by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
"I think the timing is not a coincidence," Etkes said. "Sharon knows that he has to impress Powell with pictures of some settlers being dragged off a hill, to show that he really is fighting for peace."
The settlers said they are confused by Sharon, who told their leaders this week that all of the outposts would be dismantled. Yet settlers believe the road map will fail long before settlers are evicted.
"Sharon says he is going to give the Palestinians a state," said Ariel. "He means it, I think. The future is so uncertain. Are we in the way of peace by being here? No. Are we in the way of a Palestinian state? I hope not. This is a show by Sharon. I think he is very scared of the Americans."
Ariel, one of the few Jewish settlers willing to be interviewed, has four children and moved to Mitzpeh Yitzhar five years ago. Yesterday, she encouraged children to block bulldozers and yelled at soldiers.
"You'll just get 28 days, it's not so bad," she shouted, referring to the standard punishment for disobeying orders.
`What are you doing?'
Soldiers had arrived in the area at 10 a.m. but found their way blocked about two miles and two hilltops away at the settlement gate. Protesters hurled purple paint at jeep windshields and shattered side windows with stones. Young girls lay down across the narrow road and climbed over military vehicles.
Police pulled the settlers off, and the vehicles inched forward only to be blocked again after only a few yards, a pattern that continued for hours. Soldiers said they were under orders to use as little force as possible, and at times appeared stymied.
"It's my house," a woman shouted as soldiers dragged her from a bulldozer and pulled her daughter from the front seat of an army jeep. A procession of eight mothers with baby strollers showed up and parked their infants in front of a bulldozer.
"You don't have to do this," one mother yelled as the driver gunned the engine. "You want to give this land to the Palestinians who are trying to kill us. There will be no peace."