HEBRON, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli police used teargas and clubs to evict hard-line Jewish settlers from a building in the West Bank city of Hebron on Thursday, igniting a wave of settler violence across the Palestinian territory.
The lightning operation by hundreds of policemen and soldiers ended in less than an hour.
About 30 settlers suffered light-to-moderate injuries, mostly due to smoke inhalation. Three policemen were hurt by settlers, who threw rocks, chemicals and food at them.
Angry Jewish settlers, some armed, responded by setting fire to Palestinian cars and property near the building. Eight Palestinians were hurt, including three from gunshot wounds. One of the shootings was filmed by a volunteer for a rights group.
Settler violence quickly spread to other areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank with security forces moving to quell the protests, although Palestinian residents said settlers had blocked roads and thrown stones at their cars causing damage.
After a few hours of protests in Hebron, at around midnight, local residents reported clashes had largely died down and an army spokesman said there were no reports of major incidents across the West Bank.
Tensions have been especially high in the flashpoint city since the Israeli High Court on November 16 ordered settlers to vacate the building they have been occupying since March 2007.
Police in riot gear dragged settlers out of the building, some of them kicking and screaming.
Four Hebron settlers later were arrested while more than 20 of their supporters in Jerusalem were taken into custody after briefly blocking a main entrance to the city, police said.
The standoff in Hebron raised fears that ideological friction in Israel could provoke internal violence before a February 10 parliamentary election to replace outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert has said a new ultranationalist underground could threaten Israel and its chances of peace with the Palestinians.
“What was put to the test today was the state’s ability to enforce the law and its will on its citizens,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He said the army had to act against “lawless” settler youth.
Israeli military analysts said they feared violence in Hebron could spread to other settlements.
“This will not end here. We will come back over and over again,” settler supporter Naftali Woldman, 20, said in Hebron. Pointing to nearby Palestinian homes, Woldman said: “All this will be Jewish land one day.”
For some Israelis, television images of the operation evoked memories of the evacuation of thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Many former Gaza settlers had vowed to prevent a repeat of the withdrawal in the West Bank.
Palestinians welcomed the eviction but said Israel must do much more. President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to evict all 650 settlers who live in fortified enclaves in the heart of Hebron, home to some 180,000 Palestinians, an aide said.
After the raid, settlers clashed with neighboring Palestinians near Hebron’s old city. They hurled rocks at each other, and settlers broke windows, witnesses said.
The settlers say they lawfully purchased the building from Palestinians. Hebron resident Faiz Rajabi says the building belongs to him and denies having sold it to the settlers.
“Thank God, the building has returned to its owners and I hope they will not come back,” Rajabi said.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Joseph Nasr, Ori Lewis and Adam Entous in Jerusalem, and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Michael Roddy