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Facing a hail of rocks, chunks of cement blocks and just about everything else that came to hand, 3,000 security men and women took four hours to evacuate two Jewish families from the apartments they had occupied in Hebron's market area on Tuesday.
Security forces used sledge hammers, chain saws and power clippers, as they stormed the heavily-barricaded apartment building. However, the protesters surprised them with a new strategy: three people entombed in a 1.5-meter-tall concrete-and-wood bunker.
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When the 1,000 police and 2,000 IDF troops arrived in the open area in front of the three apartments set to be evacuated, the first groups of police encountered a group of boys with faces covered by scarves and T-shirts, standing on top of the building.
Hebron community leaders promised in the hours before the evacuation that the security forces would be met by passive resistance only - a promise which, by and large, the protesters kept. Other than a number of rock-throwing incidents, protesters limited their resistance to screaming, writhing and generous use of cooking oil, eggs, water, flour and concrete powder, spilled onto security forces from second-story windows.
And in spite of dire predictions, the number of people treated for injuries during the operation remained low relative to more notorious evacuation attempts. Judea and Samaria District Police Spokesman Ch.-Supt. Danny Poleg said that four soldiers, 14 police officers and 25 protesters were injured during the evacuation. Of those, at least one protester and six police were hospitalized.
While one police officer was hit by a rock early on in the evacuation, a large number of the security officers injured were treated for oil splashed in their eyes.
Initially, three teams were sent to the doorways of the apartments slated for eviction, where an estimated 150 protesters and residents, mostly youths, were holed up in close quarters.
In two of the apartments, police were aided by Home Front Search and Rescue teams in prying open the front doors, which had been welded shut from the inside. Once inside the first building, police began to pull out dozens of female protesters amid screams and taunts.
But even after bringing in pressure tools and heavy saws to break down the second door, security forces discovered the bunker with approximately 30 youths sitting on top of it, singing.
After two hours of trying to figure out how to breach the bunker without harming those inside, search and rescue experts finally succeeded in breaking through and removing the activists.
As the morning wore on, both a local doctor and a police doctor became involved in assessing the medical status of the three youths inside the structure, and expressed concern that they would suffer from overheating, dehydration and lack of oxygen.
"At one point, we felt that we had to break through the bunker because [the doctors] were concerned about the fate of the people inside. We had difficulty maintaining contact with them and were afraid that they would lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen," said Poleg.
Poleg said the bunker was a new strategy employed by protesters, but said police had already taken into account the potential for such an occurrence, and had therefore brought in the Home Front Command teams.
"We are an organization that learns," he said. "We learned from the situation today. We also learned from the extensive use of oil that made the entire business more complex, because people were literally slipping out of our grip."
The two apartments - formerly market stalls prior to the closure of the market in 1994 - were inhabited for a number of months by the Bar-Kochba and Yahalom families. The Bar-Kochba family had lived in the apartments until a 2006 eviction, when they agreed to leave voluntarily following a promise that the government would reassess the status of the building and eventually legalize their presence. That agreement, however, was later overturned by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz.
"I was voluntarily evacuated once - you don't do this twice," said Gershon Bar-Kochba. "They cheated me, took advantage of my position and my status. The people of the Jewish neighborhood listened to me once, out of faith that the state would stand by its commitments."
Hebron residents claim they have documentation that the property was purchased 200 years ago by Jews and remained in Jewish hands for decades until Jordanian authorities seized it in 1948.
"We demonstrated great responsibility - more than the defense minister - and we demand the fulfillment of the agreement and the return of Jews to Jewish property in Hebron," said Hebron settler representative Noam Arnon.
"This is a crime against justice and against Jewish history," said Arnon. "I am sure we will return. Hebron has a long history, and we will return."
Later in the day, after the three apartments were emptied, the Home Front Command forces also began to demolish the interiors of a second strip of uninhabited apartments on the western side of the market area. One of those buildings, Hebron representatives said, had been established as a synagogue in memory of Shalhevet Pass, the 10-month-old baby killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2001.
AP contributed to this report.
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