HEBRON â€” Clutching her child with one hand, and a mobile phone with the other, Jewish settler Miriam Grabovsky vows to block Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron.
“The Israeli government works for the enemy. We are loyal to the land of Israel and our Torah, and we intend to fight,” says the religiously devout 25-year-old, one of about 60 squatters holed up at a former Palestinian market in Hebron.
Long the scene of confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the biblical city of Hebron has become the heart of a struggle between hardline settlers and the soldiers whose job had been to defend them.
Settlers are fighting the government of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure to show that he can act as forcefully as comatose leader Ariel Sharon, whose removal of Gaza Strip settlers last year was widely popular in Israel.
For two weeks, dozens of youths have protested against plans to evict settlers living in Hebron’s market since 2001. The ultranationalists have rampaged in the predominantly Palestinian city, torching several Palestinian homes and shops.
Many Israelis were shocked to see masked Jewish youngsters throwing stones at troops, recalling images of a Palestinian uprising. Police in riot gear stormed in to arrest a dozen suspects.
Israel is obliged to remove unauthorised outposts such as the one in Hebron under a US-backed peace “roadmap,” though removals were put on hold during the evacuation of Gaza.
Olmert ordered plans drawn up for evacuations after taking over from Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke on January 4.
Olmert is now favourite to win a March 28 election on a platform of ending conflict with the Palestinians.
Settlers fear that if Olmert wins at the head of the centrist Kadima Party, it will mean the end of many established settlements in the West Bank, as well as the outposts.
Sharon had vowed to keep the main settlement blocs, but said isolated West Bank enclaves would face evacuation.
A January 20 newspaper poll showed 51 per cent of Israelis favour a unilateral pullback from parts of the West Bank.
“If the Jews don’t wake up, by the time of the election, we will already have lost Hebron and all of Judea and Samaria,” said rightist lawmaker Benny Elon, using biblical names for the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
The World Court brands all the settlements illegal, whether they have Israeli authorisation or not. Israel disputes this.
Palestinians see them as a hated symbol of occupation and one of the biggest obstacles to peace.
Some 400 settlers live in a community recognised by Israel at the centre of Hebron, a city of 130,000 Palestinians that is revered by Jews and Muslims as the place where they believe biblical patriarch Abraham is buried.
Sharon never suggested removing the established settlements from Hebron, within the cradle of Jewish culture. The city has been a regular flash point. In 1994, a settler shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers at a mosque, after Palestinian gunmen killed two settlers on a road.
Squatters set up the new enclave in 2001 after a Jewish baby was killed. Palestinians had already been banned from the market early in an uprising that began in 2000.
“We are powerless to do anything about this. When you don’t have power there’s nothing you can say,” said Palestinian Adnan Rajabi, 24, down the street from the marketplace.
On one of the shuttered shops, someone had written in Hebrew: “Death to the Arabs.”
Settlers argue that the community is not illegal because Jews lived there until Arab rioting in 1929.
Settlers lose support
The courts have given Israel until mid-February to complete the eviction of the outpost and security forces have vowed to carry out the order.
“Until now we have been tolerant of settler riots and now we are paying the price,” General Dan Halutz, the army’s chief of staff, told the Cabinet.
Mainstream settler leaders condemned the behaviour of the Hebron youths in the same way as they distanced themselves from violence by a far-right fringe during the Gaza pullout.
But they face a difficult battle to sway Israeli public opinion that has moved against a settler movement that helped to set policy for decades.
Though there was general sympathy for the families forced from Gaza, there was annoyance at roadblocking protests, disgust at settlers who compared the pullout to the Nazi Holocaust and horror at deadly shooting attacks on Arabs by two radicals who apparently hoped to derail the plan.
About 240,000 settlers live in the West Bank alongside 2.4 million Palestinians. A further 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, annexed in a move not recognised internationally.
“Public tolerance for the settlers has declined, and even more significantly, fear of them has disappeared,” Israeli journalist Amos Harel wrote in the leftist Haaretz daily.
“The disengagement [from Gaza] proved that removing them is not a mission impossible,” Harel said.
Strong support in Israel for Kadima, founded by Sharon shortly before his stroke, has only served to galvanise ultranationalist youths who say the word of Israel’s courts is irrelevant when weighed against the word of the Bible.
“What is relevant is that it would be a sin for Israel to remove me and I would never take a single step to leave,” said 16-year-old Hodaya Amitai in the Hebron enclave.