TEL AVIV — Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seemingly determined to dispel doubts about his ability to take up the leadership mantle of Ariel Sharon, vowed this week to act firmly against violence by West Bank settlers and to evacuate illegal squatters.
His comments came shortly after the army took the unprecedented step of imposing a military closure on the Jewish settler enclave in Hebron, ending three days of rioting by settlers.
“There will be no hesitation or delay — anyone who raises a hand against a soldier or police officer will be punished with full force and evacuated from any place in which he is found unlawfully,” Olmert said in a Tuesday night exchange with reporters. It was his first public discussion of policy matters since assuming Sharon’s duties after the prime minister’s stroke January 4.
Olmert’s words were directed first of all at the rioters in Hebron, who rampaged for three days this week in the mostly Arab city, vandalizing Palestinian property and pelting troops with rocks and eggs. The riots began as a protest against the planned evacuation of eight settler families squatting in the city’s open-air vegetable market since 2001.
But security sources believe the rioters included settler youth from outside Hebron, including some evacuated from Gaza last summer, who slipped into town to join the protests. They say the violence was partly a venting of anger over last summer’s Gaza withdrawal, and partly a show of force in anticipation of further evacuations expected elsewhere in the West Bank in the coming weeks.
In his remarks Tuesday, Olmert appeared to have those other evacuations in mind as well. Military authorities have targeted four illegal settlement outposts in the northern West Bank for removal later this month or next month. Three are small outposts near Nablus that the army says served as the operational base for the recent mass destruction of Palestinian olive trees. The fourth, Amona, is the oldest settlement outpost and includes several permanent buildings, making it the most substantial outpost targeted for removal. Settler leaders have vowed to resist the evacuation by force, and the army is bracing for violent clashes.
Olmert emphasized in his comments that he was not charting new policy, but only “substituting” for the prime minister, “and I hope it’s for a brief period.” He said the government under his leadership would follow Sharon’s path.
In some respects, however, he may have been signaling a departure from Sharon’s approach. One was his hope that after the upcoming Palestinian and Israeli elections, “I will be able to enter negotiations with Abu Mazen,” the nickname of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert conditioned the talks on Abbas taking steps against terrorism, which most Israelis consider unlikely. Still, his words were seen as a conciliatory gesture.
Another seeming departure was his pointed avoidance of the word “no” when asked if he foresaw further unilateral withdrawals in the West Bank. Sharon had said flatly that a second unilateral pullout was off the table. Olmert has called in the past for Israel to pull back from large parts of the West Bank, and he did not rule that out this week. He repeated Sharon’s position that Israel remains committed to the U.S.-sponsored road map to peace, calling for withdrawals as part of a negotiated agreement.
The stepped-up plans for evacuating illegal settlement outposts also might represent a departure. Sharon, a longtime patron of the settler movement — notwithstanding his decision to withdraw from Gaza and a sector of the northern West Bank last summer — had resisted dismantling outposts, despite pressure from Washington and from Israeli courts.
Whether Olmert can follow through is an open question. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, fearing violence, has already once postponed the planned outpost evacuations.
Settler leaders, still smarting over last summer’s Gaza disengagement, say they will not accept further evacuations without a fight. Younger activists are critical of the main settler movement leadership for allowing the Gaza withdrawal without serious resistance. “Hebron will not be another Gaza,” they said this week.
Fewer than 1,000 Jews live in Hebron, a city of some 100,000 Palestinians. Since the first settlers came there in 1968, led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the city has been the scene of some of the worst friction between settlers, security forces and Palestinians.
The city is considered by Jews to be the second-holiest site in the land of Israel, the place where Abraham purchased his first plot of land, where the patriarchs are buried and where King David established his first capital.
Jews lived there for centuries until they were forced to leave in the wake of a massacre in 1929. The post-1968 settlers say their presence is meant to “right that wrong and prove that any injustice can be corrected in the land of Israel,” in the words of Miriam Levinger, the rabbi’s wife.
The squatters who took over Arab stores in the market in 2001 claim similarly that they are reclaiming property owned by the pre-1929 community. The squatters’ right to the property has been rejected repeatedly by Israel’s Supreme Court, which ordered the Defense Ministry last month to remove them.
The takeover of the Arab market came in response to the killing of a Jewish infant, Shalhevet Pass, by an Arab sniper. Her father was later arrested on suspicion of involvement in a series of deadly revenge attacks on Palestinians, including a six-month-old baby. Pass was released for lack of evidence, but his family issued a statement declaring: “Revenge is not a bad thing. It is a holy word.”
The city has seen repeated violence. The first settlers were moved in 1968 from the city center and allowed to establish the nearby hilltop suburb of Kiryat Arba, but a group squatting at the city-center’s old Hadassah hospital building got permission to remain in 1980, after six Jewish men were killed by terrorists outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
In 1983, after terrorists killed a yeshiva student, Aharon Gross, a group of Hebron settlers formed what became known as the Jewish terror underground and launched a series of deadly attacks on Palestinians. In 1994, a Jewish physician, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on Arab worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and killed 29. At that point, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin decided to evacuate the Jews from Hebron to end the friction but was dissuaded by aides who warned of fierce resistance.