NEW YORK, Nov. 10 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has won what was his first open confrontation with Jewish settlers since taking office.
But, eager to protect the strong governing coalition he has formed, he is hardly looking forward to any repetition of what occurred Wednesday.
In a scene reminiscent of the settler demonstrations that took place in 1995, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was withdrawing from portions of the West Bank under the terms of the Interim Agreement signed that year, some 300 settlers were forcibly removed Wednesday by Israeli troops from an illegal hilltop outpost.
There had originally been only four families at Havat Maon, or Maon Farm, but the numbers grew in recent weeks as settlers arrived at the barren hilltop and prepared for a confrontation with the troops.
Their numbers were nowhere as strong as the thousands who turned out in 1995 to block roads across Israel, but just the same, the images of the Maon standoff may create sympathy for their cause — sympathy that may translate into wider demonstrations as Barak attempts to advance the Oslo peace process with the Palestinian Authority.
Just hours after the standoff, Barak secured his Cabinet’s approval of the next step in that process when his ministers, by a vote of 17-1, gave the go- ahead to an Israeli withdrawal from another 5 percent of the West Bank.
Wednesday’s standoff provided its share of disturbing images: settlers clinging to rooftops before being taken away; the cries of “Shame,” “Arafat Is Proud of You” and “Refuse Orders” directed at the troops; eggs and paint being thrown at the approximately 1,000 security forces; a settler removing a Torah scroll from a makeshift wooden synagogue under a police escort.
Hours later, during the Cabinet meeting, Barak applauded the restraint shown by the troops, who he said combined “sense and determination in order to impose the government’s will on its citizens.”
“What happened at the Maon Farm is a difficult test for democracy and a red light on the road to anarchy,” he added.
But if he felt any sense of triumph, there were warnings that further confrontations were still to come.
“If this is the kind of struggle that is put up over an outpost, imagine what it will be like over a settlement,” said settler leader Benny Katzover.
The incident at Maon also drew condemnation from others.
“This is ethnic cleansing of Jews by Jews and we are ashamed of our government,” said Nadia Matar of the Women in Green movement, which opposes any Israeli handovers of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
And another handover is exactly what is planned as a result of Wednesday’s Cabinet vote.
Under the terms of the land-for-security accord signed September in Egypt, Israel agreed to withdraw from an additional 18.1 percent of West Bank lands in three stages.
In September, Israel transferred 7 percent of the West Bank to joint Israeli-Palestinian control. In the second stage, to be carried out Monday, Israel will transfer 2 percent of the land to sole Palestinian control and an additional 3 percent to joint control.
On Jan. 20, Israel will hand over an additional 6.1 percent of the region.
At that time, Israel will have completed the second phase of its West Bank withdrawals.
A third phase, called for under the Oslo accords, still has to be negotiated as part of the final-status negotiations. Its extent will determine both the size and borders of the Palestinian entity that emerges from those talks.
But if settler demonstrations gather momentum in the coming weeks, the pro-settler National Religious Party could wind up bolting the coalition.
Barak — who currently has the support of 73 of the Knesset’s 120 members and wants to keep his coalition intact through the final-status talks — can ill afford any defections as he attempts to work out a final peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
In an effort to create facts on the ground in advance of the final-status talks, settlers created 42 outposts on barren hills across the West Bank during the past year.
The government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tacitly — and in the case of some ministers explicitly — encouraged the actions.
But under an agreement with Barak last month, settler leaders agreed to leave 12 of those sites voluntarily in exchange for government approval of the remaining 30 outposts.
The settler leadership persuaded the residents of 11 outposts to leave, but Maon became a magnet for younger settlers who defied the leaders.
While most of them used passive resistance, dozens of them were arrested Wednesday for threatening or hindering the security forces.
The confrontation took its toll on the Israeli security forces who carried out the predawn evacuation.
According to Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, chief of the Israel Defense Force command in charge of the West Bank, soldiers had received psychological counseling before launching Wednesday’s operation.
“We are trained to fight in battle against enemies, not against Jews — either settlers or other Jews,” he was quoted as saying.
Emotions swelled among all the participants Wednesday. When the evacuation ended, an Israeli policewoman was seen hugging a colleague and breaking into tears.