Settlers and soldiers face off as Efrat becomes flashpoint

TEL AVIV — The hilltops surrounding the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat have emerged as the front line in the battle between the Israeli government and Jewish settlers opposed to its current path toward peace.

The battle for the hills, which began as a land dispute months ago, turned into an ideological struggle this week as Israeli soldiers and settlers were locked in a confrontation that repeated itself over and again under a grueling West Bank sun.

This week's developments were described as the most serious mass civil disobedience since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization embarked on the road to Palestinian self-rule.

The clashes came as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their talks to conclude a new agreement that would extend self-rule in the West Bank. Part of that agreement would include the redeployment of Israeli troops away from predominantly Arab cities including Bethlehem, near Efrat.

In what became a familiar pattern, Israeli security forces removed settlers from the hills, placed them in detention, then released them — only to have the settlers return to the hills, where the drama played itself again.

The clashes began Monday, when Israeli police and army troops removed several hundred Jewish settlers from Givat Hadagan, a rocky hilltop near Efrat, where the settlers dug in two weeks ago to protest the government's peace policy.

By midweek, settlers not only returned to the hilltops near Efrat, but set up outposts on hills near the West Bank settlements of Beit El and Kedumim.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, during a visit Tuesday to settlements in the Jordan Valley, vowed that his government would not submit to provocations and would continue to enforce the law.

Rabin, clearly angered by some of the questions and protests he encountered, reportedly described the settlers' actions as "ridiculous provocations."

By Tuesday night, 200 settlers were in detention amid reports that security forces were growing increasingly brutal in their treatment of the settlers.

During the confrontations, an 11-year-old boy was reportedly pounced on by three soldiers and kicked in the groin. A 67-year-old Holocaust survivor was reported to have been kicked repeatedly by soldiers until his arm was a bloody pulp.

The settlers, who began on Monday by adopting a strict line of passive resistance, became somewhat more confrontational in their approach by Tuesday.

Protesters on a hilltop outside Beit El placed their children in the front lines in an attempt to stop security forces from evacuating them — or at least to make the unpleasant task even more difficult for Israeli security forces.

When asked about this new tactic by radio and television reporters, one mother compared it to methods used by the Palestinians during the intifada.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a former New Yorker and now chief rabbi of Efrat, referred to "the downright brutality of a number of border guards."

But at the same time, he said, "many of the soldiers had tears in their eyes during the forcible evacuation."

Riskin was arrested Wednesday for his role in organizing the demonstration. Settlers clashed with police outside his Jerusalem jail, and some were arrested.

The issue of Israeli settlement expansion catapulted to the forefront of Israeli-Palestinian relations in December and January, when Palestinians protested plans to construct new apartments on hillsides near Efrat.

The Israeli government halted the construction plans when the Palestinians threatened to bring the peace process to a halt.

But this time, residents of Efrat and other Etzion bloc settlements in the West Bank were focusing less on settlement expansion than on a wider issue: their unwavering opposition to any further ceding of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

Two weeks ago, the settlers erected a tent encampment on Givat Hadagan, staking claim to land that they assert is within Efrat's municipal borders and that they refuse to hand over to the Palestinians in any peace agreement.

An order issued by the civil administration for the settlers to evacuate the site went into effect last Friday, but the command went unheeded.

On Monday, security forces spent more than 10 hours in sweltering heat to evacuate settlers from Givat Hadagan.

Hundreds of policemen, border police, as well as male and female soldiers took part in the operation.

With their arms linked, settlers responded by singing nationalist songs. Some sang "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of 1960's black civil rights struggles in the U.S. South.

"What the government has to realize is that they can take away these buildings and shacks, but we'll be back," Efrat resident Bob Steiner told Israel Radio.

I think Efrat will be the catalyst for the nation," he added. "What happens here will start taking over the rest of the country — civil disobedience until the government goes down."