Hebron victory in the eye of the beholder

Was it fear of the IDF's military machine or an offer they couldn't refuse that led Hebron settlers on Monday to pack up their belongings and willingly leave their homes in the local marketplace? It depends on who you ask. The defense establishment claimed victory on Monday following the final announcement by settlers who had occupied the Hebron marketplace that they would leave willingly and without a fight. The settlers, officials said, knew that they didn't stand a chance against 6,000 soldiers and policemen who had already proven their might during this past summer's evacuation from the Gaza Strip. The settlers, on the other hand, spun a different tale saying that while they were ready to forcibly resist the evacuation, it was the army that backed down. A deal, the settlers claimed, was struck late Sunday night between senior IDF officers and the Hebron local leadership and the residents were assured they would be allowed to return to the stores within the near future. "There were never negotiations," one senior defense official said dismissing settler claims of a deal. "We told them they had to leave and they agreed." As to the alleged promise that the settlers would be allowed to return, the official said: "That has nothing to do with the evacuation. We got them to leave and now the question of whether they will return is a separate issue." Attorney General Menahem Mazuz backed the defense establishment and issued a statement Monday afternoon rejecting claims that the state had struck a deal with the settlers. Despite Mazuz's statement, the settlers claimed they had reached a deal with the government and spent the day playing up their "responsible act" in the media. "We prevented an unnecessary fight," Hebron spokesman Noam Arnon said Monday morning. "We are leaving the homes for a short while and are coming back right away." Whether there was a deal or not, there was no doubt Monday that the "disengagement effect" played a major role in the settler's decision to leave their homes. Two weeks ago, during the violent clashes between security forces and masked far-right activists in Hebron, Arnon admitted that the violence had soiled the Hebron Jewish Community's image and possibly ruined their chances of reaching an agreement. But the Hebron story also set an interesting precedent which the defense establishment hoped it would be able to reuse in future evacuations. Throughout the past month, the army held talks with the settlers in an effort to convince them to leave their homes willingly. The talks, led by Hebron Brigade commander Col. Motti Baruch and head of IDF forces in Judea and Samaria Brig.-Gen. Yair Golan, were personally approved by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz who together with the army had an interest in avoiding a violent confrontation. It wasn't that they thought the army would fail in its mission, officials explained, but rather that when there is a peaceful way out it should always prevail.