Israel evicts Hebron settlers

19 police officers hurt in West Bank clash with Jewish squatters


JERUSALEM -- Israeli police sawed through a steel door yesterday to evict dozens of Jewish settlers from a house in the West Bank town of Hebron in the first such confrontation since Israel's new government took office.

Police were pelted with rocks and paint-filled bottles as they moved to evacuate three families that had occupied the building with more than two dozen settler youths who barricaded themselves inside as a show of support.

Last week, Israel's Supreme Court ordered the families out after police determined that documents purporting to show that the house had been legally purchased from its Palestinian owner were fraudulent.

The eviction was unrelated to plans by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sworn in on Thursday, to remove thousands of settlers from parts of the West Bank as a way to set permanent borders that would include Israel's main settlement blocs. Olmert says Israel would act unilaterally if he decides there is no Palestinian partner for peace talks.

The new Cabinet, led by Olmert's centrist Kadima party, convened for the first time yesterday, giving preliminary approval to a national budget for 2006.

Olmert has not spelled out how his West Bank withdrawal plans would affect Hebron, a town about 20 miles south of Jerusalem where tensions run high between hard-line Jewish settlers and majority Palestinians.

But Olmert said the government would not tolerate lawbreaking.

"Wherever the law is violated, wherever there is illegal squatting and wherever there are attempts to determine these kinds of facts, we will respond immediately, without compromise," Olmert said at the start of the Cabinet meeting.

Clashes broke out between settlers and Israeli police late Saturday and continued into yesterday morning. Nineteen police officers were injured before and during the eviction, which involved 700 Israeli police officers and more than 1,000 soldiers forming a cordon around Hebron, said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

Seventeen activists were arrested, Rosenfeld said.

In the end, most of the settlers were carried from the three-story building by police officers during an operation that lasted two hours.

The eviction was the most recent sign of the increasingly antagonistic relations between settlers and the Israeli government, which last summer removed more than 8,000 Jewish residents from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.

Authorities are especially concerned about the behavior of the so-called hilltop youth, Jewish settlers motivated by extremist ideology and a growing hostility toward Israel's government.

In February, more than 200 soldiers, police and protesters were injured when authorities removed protesters from nine houses built in the West Bank settlement outpost of Amona. The high court had ruled that the houses were built illegally on Palestinian land, but the settlers refused to leave and hundreds of youths came to their defense.

In other developments yesterday, Palestinian medical officials in the Gaza Strip said a man was killed by Israeli artillery fire as he worked on his farm near Beit Lahiya. But Capt. Noa Meir, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said no shells were fired into the area where the farmer, Hassan Ashafie, 57, was hit by shrapnel.

The Israeli military also denied having fired artillery a day earlier in the Beit Lahiya area, where Palestinian officials said a 60-year-old man was killed.

The Israelis have stepped up their artillery fire into the northern Gaza Strip since Friday after Palestinian militants launched a new round of attacks with primitive rockets.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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