Security and Defense: Taken by surprise

The suddenness of 'Beit Hashalom' evacuation minimized the mayhem, but the backlash may be violent.

Hebron evacuation woman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hebron evacuation woman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Col. Udi Ben-Muha, IDF commander in the Hebron region, is no stranger to evacuations. During the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he was commander of the Shimshon Battalion, which had been responsible for security in Netzarim for the two preceding years. During that time, there was a different relationship between the army and the settlers than there is today. On the final day of the evacuation, Ben-Muha spoke in the Netzarim synagogue, praising the settlers and the relationship he and his troops had forged with them. "Some of our best boys and girls fell defending this place, and we have established warm personal ties with you as human beings and citizens of this state," he said, with emotion. His speech was met by a soft round of applause, as tears dripped down the faces of many of the Netzarim settlers. Later, some of them came to the IDF base there, bringing cakes and cookies to the soldiers who had stayed behind to guard the settlement until the evacuation was completed. This week, Ben-Muha, commander of the Judean Brigade which is responsible for security in the Hebron region, was overseeing the preliminary stages of another evacuation - one of a very different nature. Most of his days were spent on a hilltop overlooking the disputed Beit Hashalom in Hebron, commanding troops and border policemen, and working to prevent the settlers and far-right activists in the disputed building from clashing with neighboring Palestinians. On Tuesday, as he stood speaking with the commander of the Givati Brigade's Shaked Battalion, Ben-Muha was approached by a barefoot youth wearing a large, colorful kippa with his tzitzit flung over his head to hide his face. The youth was passing out flyers calling on soldiers to refuse evacuation orders if and when they came. Ben-Muha, who the night before had chased after youths who were vandalizing Muslim cemeteries and mosques, took a quick glance at the boy and his flyer, then resumed his conversation. The days of Netzarim and joint settler-IDF ceremonies were clearly over, one officer quipped as he looked on. By Thursday morning, there were approximately 600 people inside the four-story building - about 20 families and hundreds of teenage boys and girls who had flocked to the home from across the West Bank, amid rumors that an evacuation was imminent. On Tuesday, pails could be seen being lowered from the roof to the ground, where they were filled with rocks, and then pulled back up. "The religious youths in the settlements have undergone a radicalization process since disengagement," a Defense Ministry official said earlier this week. "They were disappointed with the withdrawal from Gaza and the failure at Amona, and do not intend to allow a repeat in Hebron." As a result, the IDF prepared for worst-case scenarios, including the possibility the evacuating forces would be fired upon. In the event, the worst-case fears proved exaggerated. There was no gunfire from either side, and fewer than 20 were injured lightly - though one border policeman sustained moderate wounds to his eye from acid thrown on him by an evacuee. The main reason for this is because of the element of surprise - which is why the evacuation was carried out Thursday, days before it was slated to be. It is also why the settlers didn't end up using the "ammunition" (such as turpentine, paint-filled light bulbs and potatoes spiked with nails) they had prepared in one of the rooms of the house. DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak, officials said, had spent considerable time studying the operational plans for the evacuation, which involved more than 2,000 policemen and soldiers operating in several circles surrounding the home. The Border Police were tasked with the physical evacuation, and the IDF provided peripheral security to prevent right-wing activists from reaching the area. Barak on Wednesday warned of "bloodshed" if the settlers did not leave voluntarily. "We will not allow a group of extremists to undermine the state's authority," he told the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Even after his meeting with settler leaders early on Thursday, in a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise, he stressed that compromises would only be considered after the home was evacuated. And so it proved. IN THE days before the evacuation, the settlers and the security forces had engaged in a cat-and-mouse game. Army jeeps were stoned from the roof, and youngsters dashed in to puncture their tires. The settlers, for their part, were accusing the border policemen of starting the violence and unnecessarily firing stun grenades into crowds. The residents of the building had said they were determined to put up a fight and "not to turn the other cheek" as the settlers did in Gush Katif - or in the agreement reached with the state two years ago, according to which the old Hebron marketplace was evacuated. "We are preparing surprises," one far-right activist said. "Let's just say that we won't greet the evacuating forces with hugs and kisses." But, when the hour came, it was they who were taken by surprise. BEFORE THE situation escalated, the defense establishment had been leaning toward pushing off the evacuation for as long as possible. But, officials said, the violent clashes of recent days, the defacing of Muslim tombstones and mosques - and the sight of masked youth pelting security forces with rocks - contributed to creating a sense of urgency. They also established public legitimacy for an evacuation. "When right-wing politicians like Arye Eldad and settlement council chief Danny Dayan came out against the youth in the house, we understood that public opinion was in our favor," an official in Barak's office explained. But the real concern in the IDF was over the day after the evacuation. Who will now help the ideologically driven youths heal from the scars of another evacuation - one they believed would not happen, as their rabbis had told them about disengagement? "Most of the youths in the home are before military service, 16-19," an IDF officer stationed in Hebron said earlier this week. "How can they enter service when they don't believe in the state's authority, and don't listen to rabbis or anyone - not even God?" Following the evacuation, Border Police expressed concern over the outbreak of major public disturbances, particularly those involving acts of revenge against the local Palestinian population - something the media are calling the potential seeds of a "Jewish intifada."