Middle East

West Bank settlers attack Israeli soldiers

A woman and her child walk through the illegal settlement outpost of Ramat Gilad (2009)
Image caption Settlement outposts are illegal under Israeli law, and Israel has agreed to remove them

Jewish settlers and activists angry with rumours of plans to dismante illegal settler outposts in the West Bank have clashed with Israeli troops.

About 50 people broke into the Ephraim Brigade's base near Qalqilya, setting tyres alight, throwing stones and damaging vehicles, the military said.

The Ephraim Brigade commander's 4x4 vehicle was also pelted with stones.

The outposts are illegal under Israeli law and Israel agreed to remove them under the 2003 Road Map peace plan.

In an separate incident, settlers entered a closed military zone along the West Bank's border with Jordan.

They briefly occupied abandoned churches near Qasr al-Yahud on the River Jordan, which is believed to be the site of Jesus's baptism.

Police said 17 people, including three minors, were arrested.

Israeli media report that they were protesting against the Jordanian government's attempt to stop the renovation of a walkway used by non-Muslims to enter the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif in East Jerusalem.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews also entered Joseph's Tomb near the northern city of Nablus overnight to pray without permission. Palestinian security forces opened fire and one person was reportedly hurt.

Settler enclave approved

In the attack on the Ephraim Brigade's headquarters early on Tuesday, settlers and right-wing activists "set fire to tyres and damaged vehicles with stones, bottles of paint and by placing nails on the road", a military statement said. Troops eventually dispersed them.

Settlers also threw stones at Palestinian-owned vehicles travelling along the main road near the outpost of Ramat Gilad.

At one point, they opened the door of the Ephraim Brigade commander's vehicle and hurled stones. One unconfirmed report said he was slightly wounded after a stone hit his head.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the security forces to "to act aggressively" against those responsible and called on settler leaders and rabbis to denounce them.

"This warrants harsh condemnation. The security forces must be focused on protecting Israeli citizens and not on such intolerable violations of the law," he said.

Dani Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, a settler umbrella group, said those responsible "must turn themselves in and if not, they must be arrested and tried".

Reports say the settlers and activists had been angered by rumours that the demolition of several illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank was imminent, including Ramat Gilad and nearby Mitzpe Yitzhar.

About 4,000 settlers live in several dozen hill-top outposts erected without formal government approval since the late 1990s.

In August, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the state had to destroy Migron, the largest outpost in the West Bank with a population of 280.

The overnight violence came after the Israeli defence minister approved the construction of 40 homes in a new settler enclave near Bethlehem.

Officials said the homes would replace trailers currently at Givat Hadagan in Efrat, part of the sprawling Etzion bloc of settlements.

The Israeli organisation Peace Now said the trailers at Givat Hadagan had been put up without authorisation, and that replacing them with homes amounted to retroactive approval of an illegal outpost.

An aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Saeb Erekat, said the decision "deserves the strongest condemnation".

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel's 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.