Israeli security forces are cracking down on Jewish settlers in the volatile West Bank town of Hebron after days of unrest. The settlers and government appear to be on a collision course.
The Israeli army declared Hebron a closed military zone after several days of clashes between security forces and settlers. The unrest was sparked by a government order to evict Jewish squatters from a Palestinian market, after a court ruled that their presence was illegal.
The settlers are furious over the order and they accuse police and soldiers of using excessive force. "We were invaded by police, border police, riot squads, horses," David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, told Israel Television. "This is a provocation. It's a show of strength. They've entered private property illegally, and we're very upset that the government is using these kind of tactics to try to scare people."
About 500 settlers live among 170,000 Palestinians in Hebron, the only West Bank city divided into Palestinian and Israeli zones. The city is sacred to Jews and Muslims because it is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, the common forefather of both religions, is buried.
The settler families moved into the empty Arab market four years ago, after Palestinian gunmen killed a 10-month-old Jewish baby in Hebron during the height of the Palestinian uprising. Wilder says the settlers will resist. "We're working very hard to stop the expulsion, but we have absolutely no plans to leave of our own accord," he said.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered security forces to deal sternly with rioting settlers. "We will not allow lawlessness," he said, "and we will not come to terms with it."
Olmert supports Israeli withdrawals from parts of the West Bank, following Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in August. That could put him on a collision course with the settlers, if, as polls indicate, he wins national elections on March 28. The clashes in Hebron could signal the opening salvo in the battle for the West Bank.