Pelted by rocks and eggs, hundreds of Israeli police on yesterday dragged extremist Jewish settlers out of two houses they had been occupying for months in the West Bank flashpoint city of Hebron.
The operation came a day after several religious soldiers were jailed for refusing to take part in the forced removal of settlers in the town that has been a source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians for years.
More than 200 police and border guards moved in at dawn to remove two families who, backed by dozens of young ultra-nationalist Jews, had barricaded themselves in the buildings in Hebron's former wholesale market.
The security forces broke down doors as the extremists -- who believe they are carrying out God's work by living in the Palestinian town -- pelted them with rocks, eggs, oil and paint.
"Forces of expulsion, God will punish you," one settler screeched through a loudspeaker from the rooftop of a neighboring building. "You will not be able to break us, we will return!"
Five teenagers were arrested and 27 people were wounded in the four-hour operation to enforce a court evacuation order handed down to the families, who had been squatting in the building for months, police and medics said.
"The building had to be evacuated ... based on a court decision that was made at the beginning of the week," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
After the squatters were removed, the police moved in to destroy the makeshift apartments created by the settlers in closed market stores, in an attempt to prevent any more families from setting up inside.
The settlers, who claim the houses are Jewish property, said they were unbowed by the action.
"It's a shame we have got to this point," said Noam Arnon, a spokesman for the settlers. "This is Jewish property and we promise to come back."
The Hebron standoff has become a tug of wills between the state which is keen to impose its authority and ultra-nationalist Jews vowing to continue what they consider God's work by living in what they consider part of biblical Israel.
Under an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, Israel evacuated 80 percent of Hebron in 1997, leaving several hundred settlers, protected by soldiers, living around the Tomb of the Patriarchs -- a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Hebron is the most populous city in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israeli for 40 years.
"The essential question is whether or not Israel will remain in Hebron," said Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a senior figure in the settler movement.
"What is at stake is to know whether an extremist rebellious minority can continue its open rebellion against the rule of law," said Ran Cohen, a lawmaker with the left-wing Meretz party.