The (mild) battle for Beit Hashalom

Police come in through main door; surprised, settlers don't have time to hurl nail-laced potatoes.

Jewish settler hurling rock 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Jewish settler hurling rock 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
At around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, the impromptu basket ball game a number of right wing activists were playing with a soccer ball was the only action in front of the four-story Hebron apartment building known as Beit Hashalom. As the ball bounced off the tire strung onto a utility poll to serve as a hoop, one of Hebron's settler leaders, Baruch Marzel, walked quickly toward the building. He looked worried. "I just heard that the police are on their way," he told a few of the activists as he strode past. The warning of a possible imminent evacuation was just the latest of several that had spread over the last few days. Only this time, it was for real. On Sunday night and again on Wednesday morning, telephone calls and text messages had gone out nationwide, urging supporters to stream this way and try to prevent the security forces from clearing out the nine Jewish families who had lived here since March 2007. On Wednesday afternoon, the sandy lot in front of the building had teemed with activists, mostly teens and young adults. Looking to issue a deterrent statement about their power and unpredictable strategy, they threw rocks at border policemen and temporarily took over two empty structures elsewhere in the city. But on Thursday, there were few to heed Marzel's warning. Where riot police had thrown stun grenades only a day before, a new calm had descended. A few teens were reading the papers to see what headlines they had received for Wednesday's activities. On an outdoor table, a pile of bread was already hardening from breakfast. In the nearby Muslim cemetery, Palestinian mourners had just finished a funeral. One activists joked it was the most highly publicized funeral the cemetery had seen; bored photographers, with little else to do, paused to shoot it. Near a main metal door, a number of spokesmen for the settlers' group discussed that morning's meeting between the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The council had asked the Defense Ministry to allow the families to remain in the building until the Jerusalem District Court settled the property dispute between the Hebron Jewish community, which claims to have purchased the structure for close to a million dollars, and the Palestinian "vendor" who has said that no such deal took place. The council argued that the best way to solve the problem was to fast-track the court proceedings. At the end of the meeting, Barak told the Council heads that "settler leaders and the inhabitants of Beit Hashalom must abide by the law and evacuate the house as instructed by an existing court ruling, while simultaneously going to a hastened court proceeding over the future of the house." Community spokeswoman Orit Struck said the council did not represent them and that their own representatives had been in contact in the last 24 hours with officials from the Defense Ministry in hopes of striking a deal. She said that at midnight, the community's attorney had received a call from the Defense Ministry and been asked to prepare an informal document as the basis for an agreement between the two sides. Close to 2 p.m. Thursday, Struck said, her attorney told her to leave Beit Hashalom and return home, so he could fax her the document for her consent. But in spite of such efforts, the defense minister issued a statement which said that the evacuation had been ordered "after all the dialogue failed and after meetings with Council leaders did not bring resolution." Unaware of the order, activists holed up inside the Hebron building continued to seek ways to work with the Defense Ministry and others got ready for a violent confrontation, even as two vans pulled up to the structure. Within seconds, Border Police personnel dressed in riot gear and holding large plastic shields tumbled out of the van and surrounded the building. Other policemen came through side paths, including the Muslim cemetery, to create a protective ring. For months, activists had warned that the evacuation of this structure would be met by violence more severe than the clashes which occurred when security forces demolished nine homes at the Amona outpost in the winter of 2006. That evacuation lasted half a day, and some 200 police and activists were injured in the clashes. In contrast on Thursday, police easily entered Beit Hashalom through the main metal door by the sandy lot. At the side entrance, they sawed their way in. From the porches and windows, activists threw eggs and paint bombs at the officers. One officer was wounded when acid was thrown at his face. But for the most part, activists practiced non-violent resistance or struggled using only their hands and feet. In the large common room on the ground floor, used as both a dining area, a synagogue and a study hall, police threw protesters out the door one by one. In some cases, head first. In others, they were dragged over the metal stoop. One elderly man with a white beard, dressed in black pants and a white button-down shirt, shrugged the soldiers off as he walked out. Angrily he turned around and asked, "Tell me, are you a Jew?", as a policeman prodded him along. Inside the synagogue area, in a scene reminiscent of the evacuation of the Neveh Dekalim synagogue in Gush Katif in 2005, dozens of teens huddled in a corner. They locked arms and sang out, "Here O' Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one," in a plaintive wail. Police pulled them apart one by one and dragged them out; in some cases it took four officers, each holding a limb. As the last of teens was evacuated, police knocked down a light partition wall in the nearby side hallway that led to a small apartment which had housed a family with small children. A number of women clutching youngsters were quietly led out. It took almost an hour to secure the building. But outside, activists and police continued to struggle as some teens attempted to return to the building by climbing up a side path. Their way was blocked by border police. Initially the teens tried to push back, but then they changed their tactic, sat down on the ground and refused to move. As he sat on a rock, one teen took out a religious text and tried to study. As he leaned against the wall, another prayed. Some wore white T-shirts with a photograph of the building that vowed, "There will be a battle for Beit Hashalom." Police dragged each youngster down the hill, with some kicking and prodding with batons. One policeman, waving a stick, yelled at the activists, "Yallah!" The activists called out to the officers that they were "Nazis" or that they should "Burn in hell." "You should be ashamed," one yelled. "Go tell your children that you took families out of their homes in Hebron," said another. "You are partners to a crime," said one man who observed the proceedings from behind a wall. One activist pleaded with the police not to push him. He said he would stand up and walk away on his own. The officers ignored him and sent him down the slope on his back. One distraught girl , her path blocked by police officers, yelled out, "I just want to return to my country." A policeman pushed her down as well. She fell on her back and cried out as a medic came to examine her. Border police also used stun grenades to disperse the activists. In the midst of the struggle, two officers walked down the hill with a baby carriage. Overall, according to police and the Judea and Samaria Rescue Service (Hazala Yosh), some 23 activists and four police personnel were lightly wounded. One female teen who was injured in her stomach was taken by helicopter to Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. Police said that overall some 100 people were evacuated form the structure and that six were arrested, including Daniella Weiss, the former head of the Kedumim Regional Council. Once the structure was cleared out, reporters were allowed to wander through it. Food was still on the tables in a number of apartments. A teddy bear lay on the floor in the debris of one. In another, the floor by a window was smeared with egg yolks. On the porch of one apartment was a knapsack filled with potatoes laced with nails. Next to it was a box of paint bombs. Stacked behind them was cleaning fluid. On the roof, activists had collected piles of rocks. On one corner they had erected a metal poles, to which they attached tires to fling out at the officers below. But due to the surprise of the operation, Border Police spokesman Dani Poleg said, the roof was cleared out within minutes. The entire operation involved 600 border policeman and IDF troops. "Had we not come by surprise there would have been different results and more violence," Dep.-Cmdr. Avshalom Peled, the Hebron Police chief, said. Outside the structure at the end of the day stood a woman who had lived in the home for the last year and a half. She wore a skirt and her head was covered with a scarf. Strapped onto her stomach was a baby. Her path back to the home was blocked by a policeman who told her she had to leave. "I just want to go home," she said.