The arrest of five suspected Jewish militants in the West Bank city of Hebron and nearby settlements in the past month is raising concerns about a new Jewish "underground," reminiscent of settler vigilantes who attacked Palestinians in the mid-1980s.
The five were arrested for allegedly plotting violence against Arabs, security officials say, including a failed plan last year to detonate a bomb at a Palestinian girls' school in Jerusalem.
The Shin Bet security service has given the investigation high priority and says more arrests may be made.
A Shin Bet official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said vigilante suspects in the Hebron area are "very few," but potentially very dangerous.
A judge has clamped a gag order on the investigation and law enforcement officials refuse to discuss details. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said it knows of 15 killings of Palestinians in the past three years in which Jewish militants are suspected.
Settler leaders are concerned about the possibility of vigilante groups, said spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.
"We view anybody taking the law into their own hands as totally unacceptable, whatever problems the state of Israel may be facing," he said.
Jewish settler leaders in Hebron deny involvement in vigilante violence.
The arrests are an attempt by the authorities to delegitimize the 500-strong community and to make it more acceptable to remove Jews from the city as part of a future deal with the Palestinians, said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Hebron settlers.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a longtime patron of Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- some 220,000 Israelis live there now -- but some settlers feel he has betrayed them by accepting the US-backed "road map" to Palestinian statehood by 2005.
Settler leaders have also complained Sharon is not tough enough with Palestinians.
Hebron is home to more than 130,000 Palestinians and one of the tensest spots in the West Bank, marked by constant friction between the settlers and Palestinian residents. Israel withdrew from about 80 percent of the city in 1997, as part of interim peace deals, but retained control over the downtown sector to protect the settlers living there in heavily fortified enclaves.
Forty Israelis in the Hebron area -- both settlers and the soldiers sent to protect them -- have been killed in Palestinian violence in the past 34 months. In December, Palestinian gunmen killed 12 settlers and soldiers in an ambush. About 140 Palestinians have been killed in the Hebron area in the same period, including several dozen involved in fighting, B'Tselem says.
Low-level violence, including stoning, kicking and fist fights, is an almost daily occurrence.
A watershed for the Hebron settlers was the March 2001 killing of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, who was sitting in her stroller outside Hebron's Avraham Avinu enclave, her parents by her side, when she was shot by a Palestinian sniper.
Her father Yitzhak, who was among the five men arrested in the past month, was wounded in the leg at the time.
For several days, Pass and his wife refused to bury the infant -- in violation of Jewish religious law -- demanding the military first retake areas of Hebron from which the gunmen fired.
The military initially refused, though troops later retook all of Hebron.
Pass and his brother-in-law Matityahu Shabo of the nearby settlement of Maon were arrested last month and charged with possession of nine pounds of stolen army explosives.
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