AMONA, West Bank (AP) – Thousands of club-wielding riot police, backed by bulldozers and water cannons, began evacuating this illegal Israeli outpost Wednesday, pulling stone-throwing settlers from rooftops in the fiercest confrontation over settlements since Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer.
The battle over Amona, an Israeli hilltop enclave in the heart of the West Bank, was seen as a test for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has said he would act with determination against settlers violating the law.
Olmert is widely expected to withdraw from more areas of the West Bank and dismantle additional Jewish settlements, whether unilaterally or in a deal with the Palestinians, if elected prime minister in March elections.
The Islamic militant Hamas, meanwhile, faced its first major challenge since winning last week’s Palestinian parliament election after Israel said it was suspending the monthly transfer of millions of dollars of tax transfers to the Palestinian Authority pending a review.
Palestinian officials warned that without the money, they won’t be able to pay the salaries of 137,000 government employees, a large chunk of the work force. Palestinian Economics Minister Mazen Sinokrot said negotiations were Israel over the money transfers were continuing Wednesday. Also Wednesday, Egyptian officials said their country would send a strong message to Hamas to recognize Israel, disarm and honor past peace deals, the latest sign of Arab governments pushing the militant group to moderate its stance after its surprise election victory. “Nobody will talk to them before they stop violence, recognize Israel and accept (peace) agreements, including the road map,” the chief of Egypt’s intelligence, Omar Suleiman, told journalists in Cairo. The U.S.-backed road map outlines a series of steps to be taken by Israelis and Palestinians in preparation for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Separately, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas had told Egyptian offficials that he would hold off on asking Hamas to form the next Palestinian government until Hamas renounces violence.
In the Gaza Strip, an explosion blew out the walls in the home of Suleiman Abu Mutlak, a former Palestinian security official, but caused no injuries. Abu Mutlak blamed Hamas for the blast, the first attack on a leading figure in the defeated Fatah Party since Hamas’ victory. Hamas denied involvement.
In another development, the militant Islamic Jihad group and gunmen with ties to Fatah said they fired two missiles at an Israeli navy boat off Gaza. The army said that despite reports of explosions, the Israeli boat did not identify any missiles being launched at it, possibly because they missed their target.
The clashes at the Amona settlement outpost were on par with the most violent scenes during last summer’s pullout from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, in which 25 settlements were dismantled.
In Amona, settlers pelted rocks, eggs and paint-filled balloons at helmeted riot police, who approached barricaded rooftops in the shovels of bulldozers. From behind barbed wire ringing the roofs, protesters also used sticks to beat back troops climbing up ladders.
Eventually, the helmeted officers got up on the roofs, wrestled with demonstrators and took them down in the same bulldozer shovels. By noon, the first of nine homes in Amona were being demolished by bulldozers.
Dozens of people were injured, and more than 40 rioters were arrested. Israeli media said more than 50 police officers were among the injured, including one who was in serious condition. Two right-wing legislators, Arieh Eldad and Effie Eitam, were hurt on the side of the protesters. Eitam was seen with blood streaming down his forehead and Eldad said he suffered a broken arm.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said troops were determined to clear out the settlers. “This conflict has to end with one bottom line, that we enforce law and order against the rioters,” Mofaz told Israel Army Radio.
Amona is one of dozens of outposts set up by settlers in the past decade to prevent the creation of a future Palestinian state. Israel has promised to dismantle two dozen outposts as part of its road map obligations. However, since the launch of the road map in 2003, the evacuation of outposts has been bogged down in legal maneuvering, and a government report said Israel was not doing enough to meet its commitments. Some government ministries were even funneling state funds to the outposts.
The Palestinians hope to set up a state in areas Israel captured in 1967, which include the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
In all, some 5,000 demonstrators, including 1,800 extremists holed up in the nine buildings, were being forcibly removed.
Thick black smoke from burning tires rose into the air. Club-wielding soldiers on horseback charged into the crowd and water cannons tried to push back protesters. A field clinic was set up to treat the wounded, and people milled about with their heads wrapped in bandages and wearing T-shirts splattered with blood.
Troops began moving into the outpost after Israel’s Supreme Court cleared the last hurdle to the evacuation Wednesday morning.
Also Wednesday, Israel said it has frozen this month’s transfer of US$45 million (euro37 million) in taxes and customs payments to the Palestinian Authority while it reviews its options following the Hamas victory. Sinokrot, the Palestinian economics minister, said Israel owes the Palestinians US$53 million (euro44 million) for January, and that he was appealing to others, including the World Bank and Saudi Arabia, for help. Unemployment in the Palestinian areas runs high, and many Palestinian families depend on a governmentsalary. A failure to pay the January salaries could pose the most difficult test yet for Hamas, which has resisted international demands to recognize Israel, disarm and renounce violence.
“The transfers will be on hold” while the issue is being reviewed, said Regev, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. “The expectation is that automatic transfers will not continue.” The United States and the European Union also have said millions of dollars in aid, the lifeline of the Palestinian economy, could be in jeopardy unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.
Western donors, led by the U.S. and EU, funnel about $900 million (euro745 million) to the Palestinians each year, most of it designated for reconstruction projects in the impoverished Gaza Strip and West Bank. In all, the Palestinian Authority needs some US$116 million (euro96 million) every month to cover the payroll.
It has repeatedly borrowed from banks and received additional support from donor countries.