Israeli Settlers Fight Eviction from Hebron

Clashes continue between Israeli troops and Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron, where settlers have seized a number of Arab-owned shops. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ordered the army to evict the settlers from the tiny enclave.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Israel has declared the West Bank town of Hebron a closed military zone and today Israeli security forces began enforcing a ban on non-residents. Jewish settlers have been rioting in Hebron, angry about a government move to evict Jewish squatters from the former Palestinian market. Settlers have thrown rocks and eggs at Israeli security officers, who've made more than two dozen arrests. From Hebron, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Today one of the former Palestinian market stalls in Hebron is a study hall where young Jewish settler children recite the Torah during class time.

(Soundbite of children reciting in Hebrew)

WESTERVELT: Four years ago eight Jewish families made homes in these former market stalls next to a settler enclave named after a Jewish baby girl killed by a Palestinian sniper. The squatter families and their supporters ignored an Israeli court order to vacate the area by January 15th. Moves to evict the squatters set off fights, signaling that West Bank settlers aren't likely to go as peacefully as those removed last summer from Gaza Strip settlements such as Gush Katif.

Mr. CHAIM COHEN (Business Consultant): Listen, in Gush Katif we tried to be nice, to say `We love you.' The nice way didn't succeed.

WESTERVELT: Chaim Cohen, a business consultant, made his way from Tel Aviv and around local checkpoints to support the squatters and, he says, to draw the line in the opening fight over West Bank settlements. `If we don't resist here,' he says, `where will the evictions stop?' He says settlers have the right to live on land that he says was stolen by Arabs during a 1929 massacre of Jewish families.

Mr. COHEN: I believe everyone that is normal, is logical, if people comes to throw him from his home, he's trying to do like normal guy, to fight. It's a Jewish place.

Mr. DAVID WILDER (Hebron Community Spokesman): The situation is flammable. Tensions are running very high.

WESTERVELT: David Wilder is the spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron, a community whose presence has deep religious resonance for many Jews. Judaism's second holiest city is site of the biblical Tomb of the Patriarchs where, tradition has it, Abraham and his sons are buried. Wilder says he doesn't condone the stone throwing and violence, much of it by young people, but he says the Israeli government has provoked them with displays of force. He says they're trying to work out a compromise to rent the disputed market stalls and they've asked for a court injunction against eviction. But Wilder warns that settlers won't stand idly by if there are any more moves to evict.

Mr. WILDER: Again, I hope very much that we don't reach that situation. If, God forbid, that does happen, then for sure there's going to be resistance. Nobody's going to get up and walk out. People say enough is enough.

(Soundbite of hooves on street)

WESTERVELT: Israeli riot police on horseback and on foot patrol moved in just in front of the disputed market stalls today in a show of force. Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday again vowed to get tough, saying there would be no forgiveness or compromises with what he called unacceptable behavior. Several police were injured by rocks and debris in these latest clashes. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says security forces are ready to do whatever is needed to enforce government political decisions on eviction.

Mr. MICKY ROSENFELD (Police Spokesman): If necessary in the future we will be using all the facilities that we have in order to deal with disturbances and riots that take place, such as those that have happened over the last three days in Hebron.

WESTERVELT: A main road divides Hebron's roughly 1,000 Jewish settlers from the 170,000 Palestinians here. It's a street that's off limits to local Arabs.

PEDRAS (Unemployed Butcher): Even here the street not allowed for me, I walk in the street. It's not allowed. Maybe the soldier will shoot me. (Unintelligible).

WESTERVELT: Pedras(ph) is a 57-year-old unemployed Palestinian. He says he lost his meat shop in the older Absuf(ph) market section of Hebron when Jewish settlers expanded into his area in 2000.

PEDRAS: I have shop in town, in the market. Six year I don't open it. I am a butcher man. I don't have business in my shop. Closed six years. All the president, from any country, from America, who are speaking about this process will forget the word of the freedom. Where is the freedom?

WESTERVELT: Pedras says he's deeply skeptical Israeli police will ever move to evict the squatters from the market area. `This is just a show,' he says. But eviction is something Israel's acting prime minister has vowed to carry out within weeks. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Hebron.

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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