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09/07/2001 - Updated 10:21 AM ET

Israeli extremists take revenge on Palestinians

By Jack Kelley, USA TODAY

HEBRON, West Bank ó After a quick prayer, Avi Shapiro and 12 other Jewish settlers put on their religious skullcaps, grabbed their semi-automatic rifles and headed toward Highway 60. There, they pushed boulders, stretched barbed wire and set tires afire to form a barricade that, they said, would stop even the biggest of Palestinian taxis. Then they waited for a vehicle to arrive. As they crouched in a ditch beside the road, Shapiro, the leader of the group, gave the settlers orders: Surround any taxi, "open fire" and kill as many of the "blood-sucking Arab" passengers as possible. "We are doing what (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon promised but has failed to do: drive these sons of Arab whores from the land of Israel," said Shapiro, 42, who moved here with his wife and four children three years ago from Brooklyn. "If he won't get rid of the Muslim filth, then we will."


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Claiming they have been abandoned by Israel's government and determined to rid the West Bank of Arabs, vigilante Jewish settlers are shooting and beating Palestinians, stealing and destroying their property and poisoning and diverting their water supplies, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.

While Jewish extremists have lashed out before, most notoriously in 1994 when a U.S. settler, Baruch Goldstein, gunned down 29 Arabs in a nearby mosque, never before have they struck with such frequency, Israeli officials say. And nowhere has the violence been as intense as in this disputed city, believed to be the burial place of the biblical prophet Abraham.

Nearly 450 right-wing Jews, all of whom are armed and claim a biblical right to the land, live here among 120,000 Palestinians. Many, like Shapiro and his colleagues, are ready to strike at any time.

Israeli and U.S. officials have warned Sharon that if the violence against Palestinian civilians increases, it could enflame already high emotions and lead the entire region into war.

"It only takes a spark to light a very big fire here," says Yossi Sarid, a left-wing Israeli opposition leader. "This is a city that is cursed."

'A time bomb'

Since the start of the latest surge of violence in Israel a year ago this month, at least 119 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli civilians in the West Bank and Gaza, according to B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that has been sympathetic to the Palestinians' plight. Hundreds of others have been hospitalized, it says.

During the same time, at least 30 settlers have been killed by Palestinian gunmen.

In July, Jewish vigilantes killed three Palestinians, including a 3-month-old boy, in Nablus. The State Department condemned the attack as a "barbaric act" of "unconscionable vigilantism." No one has been charged in the attack.

"These people are a time bomb," says Hanna Nasser, Palestinian mayor of the West Bank city of Bethlehem. "No one is safe."

The attacks, occurring almost daily, have been condemned by nearly all Israelis. Politicians, who fear the extremists will spoil Israel's attempt to portray itself as the victim rather than the aggressor in this conflict, have been the most vocal. "These Jewish terrorists are criminals," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres says. "They've gone too far."

Yet, the attacks are expected to increase, Israeli officials say. A group of Jewish vigilantes who possess bomb-making materials has formed in Hebron, they say.

The group, which claimed responsibility for the three recent Palestinian deaths, has been distributing fliers in the West Bank that read: "Revenge is holy. It should be up to the government to do it, but unfortunately, the government does not care about the murder of Jews. There are people whose patience has run out."

Security officials also fear the extremists are widening their targets to include Israeli police and soldiers sent to protect the settlers, as well as Western diplomats and European peace monitors. All have recently been attacked. The settlers accuse them of not doing enough to protect them or of favoring the Palestinians.

Last week, 85 European Community monitors who had patrolled Hebron since 1994 withdrew after complaining of weeks of verbal and physical abuse by the settlers. "Every day, we were kicked, dragged and beaten by the settlers," says Karl-Henrik Sjursen of Norway, chief of the observer mission. "They made life impossible for us."

Shots at a taxi

On a recent Sunday, Shapiro and the 12 other extremists spotted their first target: a white Palestinian taxi that had turned the corner and begun to rumble toward them. From a hill 50 yards away, the men could be seen removing the safety locks from the weapons. Their wives were grabbing extra ammunition clips. Their children, all of them under age 12, were picking up rocks.

But the Palestinian driver, upon seeing the settlers, brought his Mercedes stretch taxi to a sudden stop 50 yards from the checkpoint. He quickly turned the car around. Cursing aloud, Shapiro ordered the men to open fire. The shooting lasted for 10 seconds.

At least two bullets hit the car. One shattered its back window. Several women wearing white Islamic headscarves could be heard screaming and seen ducking. It wasn't known whether anyone was wounded.

"We'll keep this up until we eliminate all the Muslim filth," Shapiro said before the confrontation. "We have to: It's our Jewish duty."

God's land

Analysts such as Elisha Efrat of Tel Aviv University estimate that only 10% of the 177,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza are extremists, people who are willing to die before giving up their land.

Many of them live behind 25-foot tall stone fences and bulletproof windows in Hebron. The 450 settlers here, and the 7,000 others who live down the road in Israeli-controlled territory, see themselves as the guardians of Hebron, which is considered Judaism's second holiest city after Jerusalem. All are protected by several thousand Israeli soldiers and police.

"This is God's land given to us, the Israeli people," says settler Ariel Fischer, 38, citing biblical passages that support Israel's claim of the land. Like most of the extremists, he's Israeli-born. "If you don't wear a yarmulke (skullcap), get out."

Hebron is also home to 120,000 Palestinians, many of whom live in the hilltop area of Abu Sneineh.

For centuries, Arabs and Jews coexisted peacefully in Hebron. But a 1929 riot resulted in the deaths of more than 60 Jews. The British, who governed what was then Palestine, resettled the remaining Jews elsewhere.

In 1967, after Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan River, some Jews returned. But those who came were the most ideologically extreme of Israelis. Backed by government policies that encouraged them to move into the West Bank, the Israelis claimed a biblical right to the city and demanded that the Arabs leave.

Then in 1997, the Israeli Army, which had controlled Hebron since the '67 war, withdrew from 80% of the city and ceded control to the Palestinian Authority. The remaining 20% was left for the settlers.

That was a recipe for disaster, settlers say. Almost daily since September, there have been shots fired into their settlement by Palestinian snipers. In response, Israel put 30,000 Palestinians, whose homes surround the settlement, under a 24-hour curfew. It prohibits them from leaving their homes, even to go to a doctor or attend school, and jails them if they do. Twice a week, the curfew is lifted for a few hours to allow the residents to shop. The rest of the time, they are in their homes.

Last week, hundreds of Israeli troops, backed by dozens of tanks and bulldozers, swept into Hebron for several hours to destroy buildings they say had been used by Palestinian snipers. Settlers want Israel to reestablish control of the area by permanently reoccupying all of Hebron. Until that happens, settlers say they're forced to take "pre-emptive actions" to stop the Palestinian gunfire.

"People here are extremely upset," says David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers here. "We're upset by the daily shooting, killings and harassment by Palestinians. People feel abandoned (by Israel's government) and so some people are going to take up guns."

Says another settler spokesman Noam Federman, "If we don't take up guns, we'll be ducks in a shooting range."

But Israeli officials say the settlers often provoke the violence. Unlike the Palestinians, the settlers are free to leave their homes at will. They regularly attack Palestinian shops while the Palestinians, who are forced to stay indoors because of the curfew, can only watch, human rights groups say.

Ahmad Abu Neni, 55, is blind and a Palestinian. His small kiosk of cleaning supplies has been ransacked three times since last September by settlers, human rights officials say. He's also been beaten in the back with a brick and punched repeatedly, they add.

Neni says Israeli soldiers tried to break up one of the attacks by firing a concussion grenade at the attackers, only to set his clothes on fire. He suffered third-degree burns. His shop now closed, he survives on handouts of food and money. "If I had money and could see, I would leave," Neni says. "It's just a matter of time before they beat me again."

Nearby, Nafez Bani Jaber, 45, was burying 123 of his sheep. He says they were poisoned last week after 10 Jewish extremists chased him off his fields. Israeli police say they have found needles dipped in poison that they believe the settlers used on the sheep. Police say poison also was dumped down a nearby well used by Palestinians.

"First they poisoned the sheep. Next will be the children," Jaber says. "These are war crimes."

Often, the violence directed at the Palestinians is aimed at their Muslim faith.

Settlers have spray painted graffiti reading "Mohammed is a homosexual," referring to the Islamic prophet, and painted Jewish Stars of David on the walls of the local Arab market. They have also surrounded Muslim women and tried to rip off their Islamic headscarves and body veils, human rights groups say.

Samar Abdul-Shafti, a 36-year-old Palestinian mother of two, was photographed last month trying to escape several settlers who were beating her as they tried to remove her headscarf. It has happened two other times since then, she says, revealing bruises on her arms, legs and forehead.

"The Jews are trying to do to us what was done to them during the Holocaust," Shafti says. "They must not be allowed to drive us from our homes. Someone must help."

God's army

Palestinian police say they don't have the means to defend the Arab residents. Israeli soldiers seem unwilling or unable to help. Noam Tivon, Israeli Defense Forces brigade commander for Hebron, says his soldiers are in Hebron to protect the settlers, not the Palestinians. Tivon says his soldiers and police officers often are ambushed by the settlers, whom he calls "hooligans." The settlers accuse the police of failing to stop the Arab violence.

"They throw rocks at us, curse at us and vandalize our police cars," says Israeli policeman Shahar Mahsomi, 25. He suffered a concussion in March after a settler struck him on the head with a rock. Another settler tried to stab two police officers in the same scuttle. "I never thought I'd be fighting Jews," Mahsomi says.

The situation is just as dangerous at the nearby settlements of Kiryat Arba and Givat Harsina where nearly 7,000 settlers, many of whom are hard-liners, regularly attack neighboring Palestinians.

"I can't believe we are risking our lives to defend these fanatics," says Sgt. Avi Alamm, 28 as he watches a settler boy, dressed as the late Goldstein, walk by with an Israeli flag. Goldstein, who gunned down the 29 Muslims, is revered among some settlers as a prophet. They encourage their children to dress like him on occasion. "The people make me ashamed to be a Jew," Alamm says.

Now, many Israelis are calling on the government to dismantle extremist settlements such as the one here. "The Jewish settlement in Hebron is a major nuisance, and the lawless behavior by Jews there in recent days leads to one conclusion," the Israeli newspaper "Ha'aretz" recently editorialized. "Hebron must be evacuated."

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