Yaakov Katz, Tovah Lazaroff
The Jerusalem Post
December 4, 2008 - 1:00am

The United Nations Middle East envoy on Friday praised Israeli security forces for evacuating the Beit Hashalom house in Hebron, but condemned the violence which followed, and promised that the UN would "closely monitor" the developments.

"I welcome the evacuation by Israeli security forces of approximately 200 settlers from a house in Hebron yesterday," Robert Serry, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said. "I condemn the ensuing violence and attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinian civilians and the destruction and desecration of Palestinian property, mosques and graves, as well as settler attacks on Israeli security forces."

"As the occupying power, the government of Israel is under obligation to protect Palestinian civilians, property and holy sites," he continued. "I remain concerned about the potential for a further escalation of a tense situation. I call for an immediate end to settler attacks and restraint and calm from all parties, and urge vigilance from the Israeli authorities to ensure that the events of yesterday are not repeated."

"Actions of extremists continue to pose a threat to the peace process, and further underline the need for action to fulfill Road Map commitments," Serry said. "The United Nations will continue to closely monitor developments."

The comments follwed Israeli security forces going on high alert across the West Bank Thursday night, as Jewish extremists embarked on an unprecedented rampage through Hebron in response to the afternoon's unexpected and speedy evacuation of the city's disputed Beit Hashalom.

Defense officials were concerned that Israeli-Palestinian violence would spread to other parts of the West Bank and even to the Temple Mount, where thousands of Muslims were due to gather Friday morning for weekly prayers. As a consequence, Jerusalem police announced late Thursday that they would restrict entry at the Mount: Only men over 45 with Israeli ID cards, and women of any age were allowed to the enter the compound for midday prayers.

Prayers ended on Friday without incident, but the high alert was not lifted.

Soon after the evacuation, settler youths took over a Palestinian home in the nearby valley between Kiryat Arba and Hebron, causing extensive damage. One man was caught on videotape pulling out a gun and shooting at the owner of the house and his son. Both Palestinians were evacuated by the IDF in serious condition; the shooter has yet to be apprehended.

On the other side of the valley, settler teens started a fire that threatened a Palestinian home. Settlers and Palestinians pelted one another with rocks as another group of settlers entered the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron and set fire to at least three cars.

Palestinians reported more than 20 injured in the clashes.

The evacuation took just an hour. It was carried out by some 600 members of the security forces, with border policemen entering the building, and the IDF securing an outer perimeter. Twenty-three activists and four police officers were lightly to moderately injured.

The confrontation was less violent than had been feared, with most activists caught by surprise and resisting relatively mildly. A few called the security forces "Nazis." One bystander clipped a yellow Holocaust star on his shirt.

Late Thursday night, Palestinians reported that settlers had taken over a Palestinian home in Hebron and set fire to at least five others.

Shortly after the evacuation of Beit Hashalom was completed, a group of settlers began taking their frustration out on a Palestinian news team that was filming the violence. One settler grabbed the team's tripod and began smashing it on the ground. He was detained by police.

A senior IDF officer in Hebron told The Jerusalem Post that the military had anticipated a violent response to the evacuation that would last several days. The officer said there was concern settlers would perpetrate a "religious attack" against Palestinians to avenge the evacuation. Leave for soldiers in the Hebron area was canceled.

"This is likely to happen throughout the West Bank and not just in Hebron," the officer said of the violence, expressing concern that if it continued, the Palestinian Authority security forces in the city would intervene. "This could become extremely dangerous," he said.

Maj.-Gen. Amos Gilad, coordinator of government activities in the territories, met with Palestinian Authority Minister Salaam Fayad and urged him to restrain the Fatah forces in Hebron and throughout the West Bank.

Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, also met with PA officials, including the governor of Hebron, and asked them to rein in their people.

As news of the Palestinian casualties spread, enraged residents near Beit Shapira began shooting toward border policemen.

"We heard the bullets whistling over our heads," a senior Border Police officer who participated in the evacuation said. The officer said the shots were probably fired by Palestinians from the Jable Juar neighborhood, situated next to Beit Hashalom.

He added that the Border Police would continue to maintain a heavy presence around the building to prevent right-wing activists from reoccupying it. Its entrances were welded shut by IDF engineers during the evening.

In other parts of the West Bank, extremists threw rocks at Palestinian vehicles and burned an olive grove, Palestinians said. Police said they received reports of rocks thrown at Palestinian vehicles near the settlement of Karnei Shomron.

The Palestinian governor of the Nablus region, Jamal Moheisen, warned that if Israeli forces did not bring extremists under control, "we will call on the Palestinian residents to go out to the streets and fight back."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak called on settler leaders to curb the violence. He said that he had held a dialogue with the leaders in an effort to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.

"What was tested today was the state's ability to enforce the law and to impose its authority on its citizens," Barak said.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a statement praising Barak, the IDF and the Israel Police for a swift and successful evacuation. Olmert said that his government "will not lend a hand to anyone who tries to undermine the state's democratic character and the rule of law."

Hebron Jewish community spokeswoman Orit Struck attacked Barak's "duplicity" in moving against the structure even as he was negotiating with its residents on a compromise.

"It is totally ugly. It shows that he sought violence," Struck said. Thursday's events had furthered shattered what little shards of faith the settlers had in the Defense Ministry, which had betrayed them in the past as well, she said.

The violence of the past weeks was the direct result of Barak's decision to move against the home, she said, adding that until then Hebron had been relatively quiet.

Hebron settlers' spokesman David Wilder pledged that the community would continue to buy property in the city and to move into new homes. It plans to return to court to establish the legal right to be in Beit Hashalom, he said.

"We are going to take it back and we are going to make those who destroyed it pay to renovate it," Wilder said. "I have no doubt that we will be victorious in court."

He warned that those politicians who were responsible for the evacuation, such as Barak, would pay a heavy political price when it became understood that it had been unnecessary.

As for the reports of attacks on Palestinians near the structure, Wilder said he condemned the violence, if the reports turned out to be true.

The Palestinians who lived in the area were not connected to the legal and political struggle to keep Beit Hashalom, he said.

"I personally do not see any reason or desire to take a revenge on the Arabs who live around here. There is no reason for it and it is wrong," Wilder said.

The settlers in the area felt as if "they have been stabbed in the back," he said. The leaders of the Hebron community have not called for and do not condone random attacks on people and property, he said.

"It is like shooting ourselves in the foot. It will certainly not help us reach any goal we have set for ourselves," Wilder said.


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