Text size

Security forces are preparing for the possibility of violent clashes this morning as they evacuate two Jewish families living in the wholesale market in the West Bank city of Hebron. Hundreds of settlers and right-wing protesters are expected to attempt to stop the evacuation.

However, leaders of the Hebron Jewish community said yesterday that while they will struggle resolutely against the evacuation, they will not initiate violence. Security forces were not officially negotiating with the settlers ahead of the evacuation, but indirect efforts were being made in a bid to keep it non-violent.

"Today we are preparing for a struggle," said Gerson Bar-Kochba, one of the settlers living in the marketplace. "We won't leave the marketplace voluntarily. We've already been here. The struggle will be resolute, but non-violent. It will be the police forces, not the residents, who determine the level of violence. We do not plan to use violence." Some 3,000 security personnel - from the IDF, police force and Border Police - will be involved in the evacuation. Security forces began deploying to the Hebron area last night to prepare for the mission. The police force will be responsible for the evacuation itself, the Border Police will be dealing with any disturbances, and the IDF is in charge of securing the outer security ring, meant to keep protesters away from the Hebron area.

Meanwhile, 12 Israel Defense Forces soldiers in the Duchifat Battalion refused orders yesterday to take part in the evacuation, in the most wide-scale military refusal since the disengagement from Gaza two years ago. They were brought before a disciplinary hearing last night, on the orders of GOC Central Command Gadi Shamni. Shamni also decided the soldiers will no longer be allowed to serve in combat units.

"This is a phenomenon that endangers the basis on which the IDF operates, as an army of the people in a democratic country, and its obligation to carry out the tasks assigned to it," Shamni said.

The IDF spokesman said the army would not accept refusal of orders.

"The IDF will act firmly against any display of refusal among its soldiers," the IDF spokesman said. "IDF soldiers are not authorized to choose their assignments, no matter how difficult they are. The IDF will continue to act and carry out the task imposed upon it by the political echelon, and every instance of refusal will be disciplined with great severity."

Nearly 40 soldiers had initially informed their commanders that they would not be able to take part in blocking roads around Hebron, citing reasons of conscience. Their commanders convinced all but 12 of them to change their minds: 10 new recruits and their two squad commanders. Most are in the hesder program, which combines Torah study with military service. The refusal has the support of right-wing rabbis and far-right activists.

The Hebron Jewish committee, for its part, said yesterday that the evacuation will not keep Jews from moving back to the marketplace.

This will be Defense Minister Ehud Barak's first test in his current post vis-a-vis the settlers, with the exception of the IDF's resounding failure at Homesh, where settler youth have continued for weeks to visit the remains of the outpost at their will.

The lack of media coverage at Homesh, however, has made the settlers' victory there nearly inconsequential.

Some speculate that the state has an interest in a violent confrontation, which would show the U.S. administration that the Olmert-Barak government, in contrast to that of Olmert-Peretz, is not afraid of the settlers and is taking steps to enforce the law in the territories.

The settlers, for their part, also have reasons to favor a confrontation. In their view, the state deceived them by failing to honor a promise to let them return to the Hebron market stores they left a year and a half ago. The two-year anniversary of the Gush Katif "deportation" is nigh, and the summer vacation means that hundreds of schoolchildren are ready and willing to reenact their struggle.

The only party who has nothing to gain from a violent confrontation is the IDF, which for years has preferred to reach a compromise with the settlers whenever possible.