Political Storm Rages in Jerusalem As West Bank Settlers, Soldiers Clash

An illegal settler outpost in the West Bank has become the center of a storm whose fury could be felt in the political power centers of Jerusalem.

In a tense weekend standoff, Israeli settlers clashed with police and soldiers trying to remove them from Havat Gilad — Hebrew for Gilad Farm.

The outpost near Nablus was established in memory of an Israeli killed nearby in a Palestinian terrorist attack last year.

On Sunday, the settlers burned tires, set fire to a field near Gilad Farm and blocked equipment brought in to clear the site.

But later that night, settlers returned to the site to rebuild the structures.

Sunday’s clashes followed violent confrontations the previous night between some 400 settlers and police in which some 30 people were injured.

Along with the confrontations at the site of the outpost, a political brawl erupted in Jerusalem over an army move that some Cabinet ministers said was a blatant desecration of the Jewish Sabbath.

Right-wing Cabinet ministers called Sunday for Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s resignation because troops sent to evacuate the outpost traveled there before the end of the Sabbath.

The Israel Defense Force chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, said the order to send the soldiers to the outpost on the Sabbath was apparently a mistake, and he promised an investigation of the incident.

Amid threats by members of the National Religious Party to bolt the governing coalition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also denounced the army order.

In remarks broadcast Sunday on Israel Radio, he expressed “deep sorrow, in my name and on behalf of the entire Cabinet, for the mass, superfluous violation of the Sabbath that was forced upon hundreds of soldiers for the sake of the evacuation of Havat Gilad.”

Sharon also condemned the settlers for clashing with the soldiers and police.

“Any attack against the IDF, the security forces or the police is an attack on the rule of law” and must not be allowed to take place, Sharon said.

For his part, Ben-Eliezer spoke of the settler actions as a “revolt” that endangered the very existence of the state.

Amid the finger-pointing over who issued the army directive to operate on the Sabbath, NRP Cabinet minister Efraim Eitam demanded the dismissal of Ben-Eliezer, who has spearheaded the campaign to take down the illegal outposts.

Earlier this month, Ben-Eliezer promised to have 30 illegal outposts dismantled. Of these, 20 have been taken down, an aide to the defense minister told The Associated Press.

Eitam attacked Ben-Eliezer for desecrating the Sabbath, calling the minister a liar and a coward. Eitam later apologized.

Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio that the settlers who fought with Israeli security forces were a group of militant youths “that even the rabbis cannot control, some of whom are quite problematic, violent types.”

Settler leaders acknowledged that they had little control over the “fringe” element of militant settlers and called for nonviolent resistance.

Coming on the heels of calls last week by a group of settler rabbis urging religious soldiers to refuse to carry out orders to clear illegal outposts, the clashes raised concerns among some prominent public figures that the debate over the outposts could spill into civic unrest.

Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh sounded an ominous note, saying the attacks on Ben-Eliezer reminded him of the political atmosphere preceding Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995 by a right-wing student opposed to Rabin’s land-for-peace policies with the Palestinians.

“This blend of physical and verbal violence in an attack of this sort on the defense minister,” who is also the head of the Labor Party, is “precisely the recipe for a political assassination,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted Sneh as saying.

At the end of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Ben-Eliezer complained that the government was not backing up his efforts to enforce the rule of law in the territories.

Commenting on the personal attacks against him, Ben-Eliezer said there is a need for drastic steps, Israel Radio reported.

Ben-Eliezer did not elaborate. But his remarks came against the backdrop of a simmering threat in Labor to pull out of the government over the lack of diplomatic progress with the Palestinians.

With attention focused on the confrontations at Gilad Farm, there was little immediate right-wing reaction to another potentially significant decision by the prime minister — to reduce Israel’s military presence in Hebron.

On Sunday, Sharon accepted a proposal by Ben-Eliezer for a partial redeployment in Hebron. At the same time, the army would maintain a presence on two hilltops to prevent Palestinians from firing at Jewish neighborhoods.

One hawkish legislator did weigh in against the Hebron decision.

Michael Kleiner said the right-wing was misdirecting its criticism by focusing on the defense minister instead of on Sharon.

“We thought we elected Sharon, who crossed the Suez Canal” during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Kleiner told Israel Radio. “But instead we got Sharon who took down Yamit,” the Sinai settlement that was dismantled under the peace accords Israel signed with Egypt in 1979.

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