Israeli police armed with batons evicted dozens of Jewish squatters from a Palestinian home in the volatile West Bank city of Hebron yesterday, in an important first test for Israel's new government and its plans to uproot tens of thousands of settlers.
The clearing of the three-story building was over in about two-and-a-half hours, and encountered no serious resistance. The operation was in marked contrast to the violent evacuation of part of a tiny West Bank settlement outpost in February, when more than 200 police and teenage protesters were injured.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was widely criticized for his handling of that operation while heading a a caretaker government. In related news, Olmert told his Cabinet at its first meeting yesterday that he would brook no illegal West Bank settlement outposts.
Police stormed the occupied building in Hebron after sawing through a barricaded metal door. They appealed to the settlers -- some with toddlers and babies -- to leave peacefully, and some agreed. But others had to be dragged out, including one woman whose infant was bawling as officers carried it out.
Jewish settlers outside the building tried to force their way inside immediately after police sawed off the door. But police dragged the struggling protesters away, sometimes slapping them to calm their thrashing.
In all, three squatter families and 27 young sympathizers from the Hebron area were removed from the building, police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said.
Nineteen security force mem-bers were injured, and 17 settlers were arrested, he said.
Neither he nor the rescue services had an immediate accounting of settler wounded, but Israel's Army Radio said seven settlers were slightly injured.
Avi Harush, one of the police commanders for the operation, said shortly after the evacuation began that it would proceed slowly because the building was very dark, and the stairwell very narrow.
"There are children inside, even babies," Harush told Israel Radio. "We don't want one hair on their head to be hurt."
Hebron, a city holy to Jews and Muslims, is home to about 160,000 Palestinians and some 500 ultranationalist Jewish settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves.
Three settler couples and their eight children moved into an abandoned home near the settler enclave of Avraham Avinu about a month ago, presenting documents allegedly showing they had rented the property from its Palestinian owner. Israeli authorities later determined the documents were forged, Harush said.
The Supreme Court ordered the removal of the squatters, whose ranks were bolstered by dozens of young sympathizers.
Hours before the eviction began, officers and settlers clashed as officers cleared a crowd of protesters gathered outside the home.
Settlers inside threw stones, bottles and firebombs at security forces, police said.
Some officers were splattered with white paint that settlers had lobbed.
Reinforcements were called in after the clashes broke out, police said.
All told, about 700 police, reinforced by 1,000 soldiers, were mobilized for the operation, police said.
Rosenfeld said border police would increase the number of patrols in the Hebron area over the next few days to maintain public order.
Olmert took a hard line against other unauthorized settler activity at the first meeting of his Cabinet yesterday, vowing that he would not let illegal West Bank settlement outposts stand, his office said.