HEBRON, West Bank, AP -Israel police stormed a Palestinian home Sunday to evict Jewish squatters in the West Bank City of Hebron, using a buzzsaw to remove a barricaded metal door and clashing with Israeli protesters who had gathered outside.
The protesters tried to force their way in after police broke down the door. Police in riot gear dragged them away, but scuffles between the two sides continued outside the house.
Inside the home, officers tried to appeal to the settlers, and some left willingly. One woman was dragged out as a policewoman carried out her baby.
Avi Harush, one of the police commanders of the evacuation, said the operation would proceed slowly because the building was dark, and the stairwell very narrow.
“There are children inside, even babies,” he told Israel Radio. “We don’t want one hair on their head to be hurt.”
The operation will be an important test for the new government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who plans a broad West Bank pullout during his four-year term.
Olmert was widely criticized for his handling of the evacuation of a tiny outpost in February while he headed a caretaker government. More than 200 police and teenage protesters were injured, and critics accused police of using excessive force.
Earlier, settlers threw firebombs, stones and bottles at security forces, injuring 13 police officers, police said. It was not immediately known how many settlers were hurt. Five were arrested.
Police stormed in after failed negotiations for the peaceful departure of three settler families who moved in the abandoned home about a month ago. Israeli authorities later determined that rental documents the families had presented were forged, and the Supreme Court ordered them removed.
Olmert, whose new government took office on Thursday, plans to withdraw from much of the West Bank in an effort to draw Israel’s final borders by 2010. Settlers bitterly oppose the plan. Many of them are observant Jews who say the land is promised to the Jewish people by God.
Hebron, a city holy to Jews and Muslims, is home to about 160,000 Palestinians and some 500 Jewish ultranationalist settlers who live in heavily fortified enclaves.
Hundreds of Palestinians, meanwhile, staged strikes and demonstrations Saturday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to demand payment of overdue salaries to government workers — the first public signs of discontent with the Hamas-led Cabinet’s handling of the financial crisis.
The Palestinian unrest occurred ahead of a meeting in Gaza between Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas and moderate President Mahmoud Abbas. The two, involved in a power struggle since Hamas defeated Abbas’ Fatah Party in January legislative elections, failed to resolve their differences but agreed to meet again Sunday.
Haniyeh has complained that Abbas has stripped the government of many of its powers. Abbas, who seeks a resumption of peace talks with Israel, wants Hamas to soften its hard line against the Jewish state.
Hamas’ tough stance has led Western donors to cut vital aid to the Palestinians, leaving the government broke.
“The main concern of the president is to find a mechanism for an immediate solution to the ongoing financial crisis,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a top aide to Abbas. “Unfortunately, the international community is refusing to deal with us as long as the government doesn’t change its position and the people are paying the price,” he added.
After the Cabinet took office in late March, the United States and European Union, the two biggest donors to the Palestinian Authority, cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.
Hamas has rejected the calls, despite a financial crunch that has left the treasury unable to pay the salaries of 165,000 government workers for the past two months. The government is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many families are scraping by on dwindling savings, loans and handouts.
Until now, the Palestinian public had heeded calls for patience, largely following the government in blaming the crisis on Western hostility to Hamas.
On Saturday, however, teachers at five schools in Hebron canceled classes — a strike that affected only a small number of schools but marked a change in attitude.
“I haven’t received a salary for 66 days. Of course I’m not happy with the government,” said one teacher. “I need to live and I need to feed my children.” The teacher, a father of six, asked not to be identified, fearing he could lose his job.
In Nablus, also in the West Bank, hundreds of Palestinian government workers demonstrated to demand their salaries.
Most participants at the Nablus rally were supporters of Abbas’s Fatah party, reflecting the growing tensions with Hamas. In the Gaza city of Rafah, about 150 protesters, mostly women and children, urged Hamas to pay the salaries.
Late Saturday, Russia delivered $10 million in emergency aid to the Palestinians, bypassing the Hamas-led government by sending the money to Abbas’ office.
Much of the power struggle between Hamas and Abbas, who was elected in separate presidential elections last year, has focused on control over Palestinian security forces.