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Disruptive Jewish Settlers Anger Israeli Officials


The ongoing tension between the Israeli government and radical Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank has increased in recent days. This week security forces moved in and destroyed an unauthorized settler outpost. The settlers responded by calling for violence against Israeli soldiers, and they rampaged through a Palestinian village. Senior Israeli officials are now calling for tougher action. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: In the middle of the night recently, Israeli soldiers and border police with heavy construction equipment converged on the small hillside farm of Noam and Elisheva Federman near the settlement of Kiryat Arba outside Hebron. The Israeli government had declared this two-family outpost illegal. On Sunday, the state moved in to demolish the buildings and remove Jewish settlers who believe their right to the land comes from God, not the government. Thirty-six-year-old Elisheva Federman stands near the rubble of what was her home. She says some of her nine children were roughed up by the Israeli security forces and then forced out of the trailer they've been living in for the last three years.

Ms. ELISHEVA FEDERMAN (Israeli Settler): They thought it was a terror attack. They thought that Arabs came to kill them. They broke everything. It was like a pogrom.

WESTERVELT: Elisheva and her husband were detained for several hours. Israeli soldiers leveled the Federman's house and adjacent farm sheds. That same morning, in response to the demolition, angry settlers rampaged through an adjacent Palestinian village. They slashed tires and broke windows on some 80 cars and desecrated headstones at a Muslim cemetery. Several settlers were arrested for attacking Israeli police officers, and two women were detained for trying to set fire to a police car. Later, right-wing settlers called in to Israel army radio and shouted for revenge attacks against Israeli soldiers saying they should, quote, "be killed and slaughtered because that's what they deserve," end quote.

Human rights and peace groups and leading Israeli newspapers and politicians denounced the rampage and threats as settler terrorism. It was the latest in a series of recent attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinians and their property. The Israeli army recently issued restraining orders against several right-wing settlers in the West Bank, effectively banning them from the area until after the Palestinian olive harvest. Professor Zeev Sternhell is one of the founders of Peace Now, a liberal group opposed to the occupation of the West Bank. Last month someone tried to kill him in a pipe bomb attack at his house in Jerusalem. He says the latest rampage underscores a culture of lawlessness among extremist settlers in the West Bank.

Professor ZEEV STERNHELL (Founder, Peace Now; Historian; Writer): They do not respect the Israeli law, decision taken in the Israeli courts. And the government is unable, unwilling, because too scared, to enforce the law.

WESTERVELT: But this time might be different. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the attacks and threats had crossed a red line.

Mr. MARK REGEV (Spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister): This extremist vigilante violence simply must stop.

WESTERVELT: Mark Regev is the Israeli prime minister's spokesman.

Mr. REGEV: And I think as Israeli's we have to remember that it was a right-wing extremist who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin, and as a society we can't allow them to trample on other people's rights, on other people's property, on other people's lives.

WESTERVELT: Defense chief Ehud Barak, whose ministry oversees Israeli military control of the West Bank, said security forces need to eradicate settler violence. Barak called a top-level security meeting in which he proposed that right-wing activists who use violence be banned from entering the West Bank and that some be put under administrative detention, a controversial tactic long used against Palestinians in the occupied territory.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem says there are more than a hundred settler outposts on the West Bank the Israeli government considers illegal. As part of the road map peace process, the Israeli government pledged to dismantle all illegal settlements constructed since March of 2001. So far they've dismantled only a handful. Hagit Ofran with Peace Now says despite repeated pledges by senior Israeli officials, not one illegal outpost has been fully evacuated this year. They're always rebuilt and repopulated, she says, just like the Federman outpost today.

At what's left of the Federman outpost, some two dozen settlers, most of them teenagers, are already busy removing debris and rebuilding some of the structures. Elisheva defends the settler's latest riot through a Palestinian village calling it an understandable response to the state's demolition, and she's unapologetic about the threats of violence against fellow Israelis.

Ms. FEDERMAN: The Israeli authorities are treating us as if we are their enemies by destroying our homes.

WESTERVELT: It's OK to threaten Israeli soldiers?

Ms. FEDERMAN: Is it OK to do what they have done?

WESTERVELT: Elisheva then points to a newly built shack amid the rubble, a shed she and her family are now living in. We're following God's law, she says. And we will rebuild. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, near Kiryat Arba on the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.