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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Bank Settlement Pits Jew Against Jew

JERUSALEM -- In a melee of flying fists and shouted abuse, Israeli soldiers and police dragged recalcitrant Jewish settlers off a West Bank hilltop on Sunday, demolishing metal shacks the settlers had set up in an attempt to lay claim to a rocky, remote patch of land outside the Palestinian city of Nablus.

The confrontation set off bitter recriminations within Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government, with Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer criticized by conservative and religious elements in the governing coalition over the method and timing of the eviction.

Israelis across the political spectrum were troubled by the spectacle -- seen in TV footage that led national newscasts and was aired over and over again -- of soldiers and settlers coming to blows, Jew pitted against Jew.

For many here, that was a vision fraught with painful overtones, coming near the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by an ultra-nationalist Jew.

Trouble had been brewing for days at the dusty hill known as Havat Gilad, or Gilad Farm, one of more than a dozen settler outposts branded illegal by the government. The army has been moving to dismantle these offshoots of larger settlements, but troops encountered significant resistance at Havat Gilad, which was set up in memory of a slain settler.

Soldiers and settlers had skirmished intermittently last week, but the standoff came to a head Saturday night when troops moved in just after the end of the Jewish Sabbath, setting off a fracas that injured about two dozen people.

On Sunday, some observant Jews in Sharon's government denounced military leaders for violating religious law by mobilizing their men before the Sabbath ended. Army operations considered necessary to save lives are exempt from Sabbath rules, but critics said evicting the settlers was not a matter of life or death.

When soldiers and police returned Sunday to demolish remaining metal shack-like structures, about 1,000 settlers and their supporters staged a furious show of resistance, setting fire to dry scrubby brush, blocking bulldozers with their bodies, screaming pleas and insults at the Israeli troops.

"You are the PLO army!'' some of the protesters shouted.

Troops destroyed the outposts' remaining metal shacks and withdrew, but a milling crowd of several hundred angry young settlers and supporters had returned to the site by late Sunday.

For many here, the Havat Gilad confrontation was a reminder of the divide between religious and secular Israelis -- a long-standing social chasm that has receded somewhat from the public consciousness during the past two years of bloody conflict with the Palestinians.

Before the intifada began, public opinion polls routinely showed that many Israelis considered the religious-secular clash to be as great a threat to the state as conflict with the Palestinians. Sharon himself apologized for the violation of the Sabbath, but in a rare rebuke to the settlers, warned extremists against taking on the police and the army.

"Any attack on the IDF, the security forces or the police is an attack on the rule of law, and should be firmly condemned and prohibited,'' the prime minister was quoted by Israeli media as telling his Cabinet.