Dozens of Settlers Pelt Troops With Stones in Yitzhar

Two soldiers were wounded in clashes with residents of the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar yesterday. Police arrested one settler and pledged that other arrests would soon follow.

In another serious incident, settlers from the Havat Gilad outpost threw stones at a Palestinian car.

The Yitzhar incident began at about 4 P.M., when, according to the army, soldiers on patrol spotted a group of teens heading toward a nearby spring. A standing order issued by the GOC Central Command forbids Israelis to go there for fear of friction between the settlers and residents of nearby Palestinian villages.

The soldiers therefore asked the teens to turn back. The teens refused, saying the army had no business stopping them from going anywhere in the Land of Israel.

The patrol then summoned reinforcements, as did the teens, until about 30 youths were present.

"Suddenly, four masked men began throwing stones and paint bombs at us from behind," a soldier said. One soldier was injured when a paint bomb - a lightbulb filled with paint - hit his face.

The settlers, however, say the soldiers had been deliberately trying to prevent them from hiking in the area since that morning, and when the troops formed a line to do this more effectively, clashes erupted. One soldier even fired in the air, they say.

The army denied this, saying the sound was actually a firecracker set off by a settler.

However, the settlers demanded the alleged shooter's name and said they would not let the soldiers leave the settlement until they got it.

More policemen and soldiers soon arrived, led by deputy commander of the Samaria Brigade, Lt. Col. Tal Aviv. He spoke with the settlers at length, and after he promised to investigate the incident, they finally agreed to disperse.

Police then arrested one settler - whom army sources said was masked, but whom settlers termed an innocent bystander - and settlers then stoned soldiers at the settlement gate, lightly wounding a border policemen. The troops finally left at 8:30 P.M.

Senior army officials were furious.

"The people who rioted there are scum," one officer told Haaretz. "They don't even represent the settlers of Yitzhar. Most of the problems in that area come from students at the settlement's yeshiva. People think they come there to learn Torah, but the only reason they study there is to cause trouble and harass the Palestinians."

He said the army plans harsh action against the rioters, in conjunction with the police and the Shin Bet security service. "This [the yeshiva] is a serious source of violence and harassment, and the time has come to stop it," he said.

Officers said that most settlers disapprove of attacking soldiers, but a clear denunciation by settler leaders is needed.

One came later that night from Gershon Mesika, head of the Samaria Regional Council, who said, "Under no circumstances can we accept harming even the hair on the head of an Israel Defense Forces soldier. If someone hurt IDF soldiers, the full severity of the law must be used against him."

The IDF Spokesman's Office termed the violence "an intolerable crossing of a boundary, especially on Independence Day." The settlement countered with a statement accusing "someone in the Samaria Brigade of trying to spark confrontations" by issuing the hiking ban.