The hilltops surrounding the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat have emerged as the front line in the battle between the Israeli government and the Jewish settlers opposed to its current path toward peace.
The battle for the hills, which began as a land dispute months ago, turned into an ideological struggle this week as Israeli soldiers and settlers were locked in a confrontation that repeated itself over and again under a grueling West Bank sun.
This week’s developments were described as the most serious mass civil disobedience since Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization embarked on a path toward Palestinian self-rule.
The clashes came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their negotiations to conclude a new agreement that would extend self-rule in the West Bank. Part of that agreement would include the redeployment of Israeli troops away from predominantly Arab cities.
In what became a familiar pattern, Israeli security forces removed settlers from the hills, placed them in detention, then released them – only to have settlers return to the hills, where the drama played itself out once again.
The clashes began Monday, when Israeli police and army troops forcibly removed several hundred Jewish settlers from Givat Hadagan, a rocky hilltop near Efrat, where the settlers dug in two weeks ago to protest the government’s peace policy with the Palestinians.
set up an outpost on a another hill near the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, during a visit Tuesday to settlements in the Jordan Valley, vowed that his government would not submit to provocations and would continue to enforce the law.
Rabin, clearly angered by some of the questions and protests he encountered, reportedly described the settlers’ actions as “ridiculous provocations.”
forces were growing increasingly brutal in their treatment of the settlers. During the confrontations, an 11-year-old boy was reportedly pounced on by three soldiers and kicked in the groin. A 67-year-old Holocaust survivor was reported to have been kicked repeatedly by soldiers until his arm was a bloody pulp.
The settlers, who began on Monday by adopting a strict line of passive resistance, became somewhat more confrontational in their approach by Tuesday.
Protesters on a hilltop outside Beit El placed their little children in the front lines in an attempt to stop security forces from evacuating them – or at least to make the unpleasant task even more difficult for Israeli security forces.
When asked about this new tactic by radio and television reporters, one mother compared the tactic to that used by the Palestinians during he intifada.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a former New Yorker who serves as the chief rabbi of Efrat, referred in a statement to “the downright brutality of a number of border guards.”
But at the same time, he said, “many of the soldiers had tears in their eyes during the forcible evacuation.”
The issue of Israeli settlement expansion catapulted to the forefront of Israeli Palestinian relations in December and January, when Palestinians protested settler plans to construct new apartments on hillsides near Efrat.
At that time, the Israeli government halted the settlers’ construction plans when the Palestinians threatened to bring the peace process to a halt.
But this time around, residents of Efrat and other Etzion bloc settlements in the West Bank were focusing less on settlement expansion than on a wider issue: their unwavering opposition to any further ceding of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
Two weeks ago, the settlers erected a tent encampment on Givat Hadagan, staking claim to land that they assert in within Efrat’s municipal borders and that they refuse to hand over to the Palestinians in any future peace agreement.
An order issued by the civil administration for the settlers to evacuate the site went into effect last Friday, but went unheeded.
On Monday, security forces spent more than 10 hours in the sweltering heat to evacuate settlers from Givat Hadagan.
Hundreds of policemen, border police, as well as male and female soldiers took part in the operation. With their arms linked, settlers responded by singing nationalist songs. Some sang “We Shall Overcome.”
“What the government has to realize is that they can take away these buildings and shacks, but we’ll be back,” Efrat resident Bob Steiner told Israel Radio.
“I think every movement needs a catalyst. I think Efrat will be the catalyst for the nation,” he added. “What happens here will start taking over rest of country – civil disobedience until the government goes down.”
The settlers’ response to Monday’s evacuations was to establish three more unauthorized holdouts during the night, two outside Efrat and one outside Beit El.
On Tuesday, security forces, determined to evacuate the settlers once again, moved in swiftly to remove the settlers one by one from the hillsides.
By sundown Tuesday, security forces had managed to evacuate the settlers from all three sites. But in the early hours of the evening, hundreds of settlers from Efrat stormed Givat Hadagan and re-established themselves three again.
Leaders of the settlers movement, far from giving up, vow to establish yet more points of confrontation in the West Bank in the days to come.