Escalating aggression from a group of extremist settler youths holed up in one of the West Bank's most explosive flash points - a disputed house in the biblical city of Hebron - approached a boiling point Wednesday as Israel's government vowed to evict them.
Israel called in 300 riot police on Wednesday to rein in the dozens of young settlers hurling stones and debris at both the Palestinians who surround them and the Israeli security forces standing guard the four-story structure the settlers have named the House of Peace.
Police took more than 15 young settlers into custody on Wednesday after the clashes, a police spokesman said.
Black stars of David daubed on Muslim gravestones nearby, the smashed windows of a Palestinian home and a wall tagged with a spray-painted Hebrew word - revenge - were evidence of the dangerously increasing violence around the building.
Hundreds of right-wing protesters have come to the Jewish enclave in recent days to protest against Israel's plans to remove 13 families from the building in accordance with a high court ruling.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak is expected to meet with settler leaders on Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to forge an agreement ahead of the scheduled evacuation of the disputed house, called "House of Contention" by opponents.
The meeting, initially set for Wednesday evening, was canceled just hours before it was scheduled to take place. No reason was given for the cancellation.
The government is likely to instruct the Israel Defense Forces to forcibly evacuate the house unless an imminent agreement is reached between security officials and settler leaders.
The High Court of Justice last month ordered the house evacuated within three days, after ruling that settlers had forged ownership claims over the building. A loophole in the order, however, has given settlers nearly an entire month extra before the evacuation could be forcible implemented.
Settlers moved into the building in 2007 saying they had purchased it from a Palestinian. Palestinian Faiz Rajabi said the building belongs to him and denies selling it to the settlers.
Meanwhile, Hebron settlers on Wednesday accused security forces of hurling stun grenades at them during the clashes which erupted earlier that day.
Hebron settler leader Noam Arnon told Haaretz that Border Police and the Israel Police were to blame for the recent escalation of violence.
The clashes began on Wednesday afternoon, after around 20 right-wing activists broke into the house that had been sealed off by the police.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter on Wednesday called for a mutual understanding to be reached ahead of the evacuation. "It is clear to all of us, including the settlers, that this issue would be best solved in agreement," he said.
"However, if need be, the security system will use force," the minister added.
Disputes among settler leaders
Prominent settler leader Daniela Weiss, meanwhile, denied on Wednesday that the area surrounding the House of Contention in Hebron was a closed military zone, despite officials declaring it so Tuesday.
"There is no closed military zone here... People are walking around freely from [the settlement of] Kiryat Arba to the house, and from there to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. I don't see any signs of the [military] order," said Weiss, speaking to Army Radio.
Weiss, an extreme right-wing activist who has in the past been detained for attacking police officers, continued: "This is an anti-Semitic act - the thought of evicting Jews from the home. I hope that the government will regain its sanity and they will remove this decree."
The chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, Danny Dayan, criticized Weiss for her comments Wednesday, saying she was responsible for brining about "irreversible damage to the future of the House of Peace [the term used by settlers referring to the House of Contention]."
Dayan added that Weiss' conduct creates the opposite effect from the one intended, saying "Weiss plays precisely the part assigned to her by the left - that of turning Judea and Samaria into a sort of 'Wild West' in the eyes of the Israeli public."
According to Dayan, the leadership of the Jewish settlements in Hebron is responsible, and is able to fight firmly while respecting boundaries. "Our struggle is legitimate and must be conducted in legitimate ways: It can be won legitimately," Dayan said.
Rabbis from across the country have arrived in Hebron in order to urge the settler youth surrounding the House of Contention not to act violently.
Border Police on Tuesday night took control of the area around the house, and four Border Police companies were deployed in Hebron.
The IDF banned Jews from entering Palestinian neighborhoods in the area after settlers announced plans to march toward Palestinian villages to protest the evacuation, which was mandated by a recent High Court of Justice ruling that the house must be evacuated. Settlers said they expect the evacuation to take place within the next two days.
The army blames the settlers for instigating clashes with Palestinians, which led to the injury of 18 Israeli security personnel and settlers Tuesday, including a 15-year-old boy whose skull was fractured after he was hit in the head by a rock. Twenty Palestinians have been hurt in the clashes since Monday, the Palestinian Authority said.
Two Jewish youths were detained for questioning Tuesday on suspicion of involvement in throwing stones at Palestinians near the House of Contention. The extent of the violence recently exhibited by the settlers has been "nearly unprecedented" over the past few days and could spark Palestinian revenge attacks, IDF sources said. They called on educators in West Bank yeshivas and high schools to restrain their students, adding that most of the settlers involved in the fighting were young people from the territories.
'Rabbis encouraging students to skip school and go to Hebron'
Rabbis and principals are "turning a blind eye to their students' skipping school to go to Hebron, and some are even encouraging them," an IDF source said.
"We're sorry about the boy who was seriously wounded Tuesday," a military official added, "but the truth needs to be said: He is not a resident of Hebron and there was nothing for him to be doing there, in the heart of the riots. He should have stayed in school."
Palestinian residents of Hebron say youths congregate on top of the building and throw stones at passing Palestinians and even Red Crescent ambulances, have written hate graffiti such as "Death to the Arabs" and "Mohammed is a pig" on Muslim homes and mosques, and have vandalized Muslim gravestones. Such behavior has led IDF sources to view extreme right-wing activists as attempting to instigate a "religious war" with the Palestinians. The settlers have inflicted significant damage on Palestinian property, hurling stones at vehicles with Palestinian passengers in four nearby villages, puncturing car tires and breaking windows. They also destroyed some 70 olive trees in a village near Ramallah.
The IDF and police Tuesday began preventing Israeli citizens from traveling from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc toward Hebron unless they could prove they live in the area, in an effort to keep other settlers from bolstering the protesters. The decision to close the area to civilians and deploy the Border Police force was also made Tuesday, by GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, after IDF troops in the area had difficulty handling the settlers.
"We cannot accept attempts by small groups of radicals to undermine the authority of the state over its citizens," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday. "Security forces will have to act so that the law is respected."
Defense Ministry officials said Israel will need to take further steps against the settlers responsible for the violence.
Civil Administration head Yoav Mordechai worked Tuesday to convince Palestinian Authority leaders, including Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to try to restrain Palestinian violence in response to the settlers' action. Mordechai told them that the IDF and police were fighting settler violence and the Jewish rioters would be indicted, and expressed regret for the damage to the mosques.
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