HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Sunday that attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians last week were a “pogrom” and that Israeli police must end “intolerable leniency” toward such violent offenders.
“As a Jew, I am ashamed of other Jews doing such a thing,” Olmert told his cabinet, referring to a shooting incident.
But in the West Bank city of Hebron, where at least three Palestinians were wounded by gunfire on Thursday after troops cleared dozens of hardline, religious settlers from a large building, many locals were skeptical of such Israeli promises.
“We’re expecting to be attacked again at any time by the settlers,” said Bassem al-Jabari, as he and other neighbors looked at the evacuated site on Sunday. “No one cares about us.”
Olmert, who has resigned over a corruption scandal but stays on as caretaker until after a February 10 election, has lately taken to describing settler attacks as “pogroms,” using the Russian term for violence against Jews a century ago that drove some to emigrate to Palestine and, in time, establish the Israeli state.
“We are a people whose historical ethos is built on the memory of pogroms,” Olmert told his cabinet, according to a statement. “The sight of Jews standing with guns and shooting at innocent Palestinian civilians can only be called a pogrom.”
His latest remarks were among his strongest yet. They follow the broadcasting of video apparently showing a settler shooting and wounding Palestinians, as well as stone-throwing and other violence across the West Bank, including the torching of olive groves, which Palestinians leaders described as “waging war.”
Olmert said he was pressing for prosecutions and “an end to the intolerable leniency ... toward settlers who break the law.”
An Israeli court remanded one settler in custody on Sunday over the shooting allegation and released another on bail.
The United States, which failed in efforts to broker a peace in this final year of George W. Bush’s presidency, has described the settlement of half a million Israelis in the West Bank since Israel captured the territory in 1967 as an obstacle to peace.
Olmert says Israel should clear outposts but draw borders with a new Palestinian state to ensure major settlements, deemed illegal under international law, are incorporated into Israel.
In Hebron, troops now occupy the building, dubbed “House of Peace” by the dozen or so settler families who refused to obey a court order to leave last month. A Palestinian denies selling it to them and is asking Israeli courts to return his property.
Mohammed al-Jabari, who lives close by the building, on a strip of hillside separating Hebron’s ancient center from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, said neighbors were glad the army was now in control: “It’s better now. There is respect for the law. When the settlers were here, there was no law.”
Longer term, however, his neighbors are not optimistic.
Jabari and other householders, mostly also from the Jabari clan, living in flat-roofed houses among patches of field and olive trees around the evacuated building recount a year or more of tension and clashes with the Jewish former occupants.
Though the allegations could not easily be verified, tales of rocks thrown at homes, women intimidated, a dead dog tossed into the courtyard of the local mosque, a horse poisoned, and so on were repeated by several Palestinians living close to a hard core of settlers. These see expansion in Hebron, which is home to the tomb of Abraham, as a religious and nationalist duty.
Israeli troops protect some 650 Jews living in the center of Hebron, a city of 180,000, as well as surrounding settlements.
Palestinians say Israeli forces turn a blind eye to settler attacks while punishing Arabs who resort to violence: “It’s double standards,” Issa Amro, 28, a human rights activist.
He said local people were particularly fearful that settlers are allowed to carry rifles: “There is an Israeli soldier to protect every one of them,” Amro said. “Why do they need M-16s?”
Another neighbor, using his nickname Abu Firas, recalled how his children had been terrified as settlers attacked their home with burning material and stones on Thursday: “They burned our homes with the protection of the Israeli state,” he said.
“Right now, I see no Israeli government. I see gang law,” he added, surveying the hillside from a cemetery where at least two Muslim headstones have been daubed with a star of David.
“The only way to end this is for Israel to pull all settlers from the West Bank. It’s a fight for survival. It’s us or them.”