Hebron is home to approximately 600 of Israel's most extreme Israeli settlers, who are surrounded by a Palestinian population of more than 170,000, and protected by several thousand Israeli Defense Force (IDF) soldiers.
Baruch Goldstein, a doctor who had emigrated from the U.S. machine-gunned 29 Palestinians to death in 1994 as they prayed in Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan.
Hebron settlers later built a shrine to him, and many settlers from the occupied territory pay their respects to the late doctor, who was beaten to death by survivors, during visits to the shrine.
There are about 430,000 Israeli settlers living in hundreds of settlements throughout the West Bank, which are illegal according to international law and UN Security Council resolutions.
A recent UN report documented 222 settler attacks against Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the first half of this year, against a total of 291 for the whole of last year.
Last week clashes broke out between Israeli soldiers and Hebron settlers following a controversial ruling by the Israeli High Court of Justice.
The court ruled that a group of settlers illegally occupying a Palestinian home in the town had to vacate the property.
Following the ruling angry settlers went on a rampage, vandalized Palestinian property, desecrated Muslim graves, uprooted 40 olive trees, and scrawled graffiti on a local mosque.
As the Israeli security forces tried to restore a vestige of law and order, a soldier had turpentine thrown in his face, while others were assaulted. IDF vehicles were damaged.
IPS received an urgent media alert from the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), a group of international peace activists based in Hebron's old city, who try to protect Palestinian children and farmers from settler attacks.
"This morning 15 masked settlers from the illegal outpost of Havot Ma'on attacked three Palestinian shepherds who were grazing their flocks in a valley south of the outpost.
"The settlers hurled rocks and killed one of the shepherd's donkeys by stabbing it in the chest. They slashed another across the throat, but the donkey survived."
The increasing levels of violence during the past few months have included Israeli soldiers being threatened with knives and guns, and having their hands and arms broken by settlers as the forces tried to evacuate settler outposts.
A holocaust survivor and harsh critic of the settlements, Prof. Zeev Sternhall who lectures at Hebrew University in Israel, was injured after a pipe-bomb exploded outside his Jerusalem home several months ago.
Police found posters in Sternhell's neighborhood offering a 278,000 dollar reward to anyone who killed a member of Peace Now, an Israeli group that campaigns against settlements in the West Bank.
The Israeli government has expressed alarm, and threatened to take action despite having a history of not only appeasing the settlers but of supporting the settlement policy both militarily and economically over the decades.
Following a threat by a settler to kill Israeli soldiers, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet during its weekly session that such violence would no longer be tolerated.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak added, "These riots and public disturbances are extremely grave, and their objective is to undermine the authority of the state and its ability to impose order on its citizens."
But Israeli human rights organizations accuse their government of turning a blind eye to settler attacks on Palestinian civilians and their property. Yesh Din released a report recently titled 'Justice for All?.' In the report the organization stated that few of the probes into offences allegedly committed by Israeli soldiers and settlers against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank yield indictments.
The group's research director Lior Yavne told IPS, "Conviction rates for Israeli settlers and soldiers involved in violence against Palestinians are around six percent of cases opened, due to what we consider unprofessional investigations.
"In many instances the paperwork is either 'lost' or the police or military personnel involved in the investigations claim they are 'unable to identify the perpetrator.'"
Sarit Michaeli from B'tselem also accused the Israeli authorities of being lenient on settlers accused of assaulting Palestinians, while being extremely harsh on Palestinian violence against settlers.
"Many times the authorities allow settler children to get away with attacks and stone throwing, claiming they are minors. The same doesn't apply to Palestinian juveniles who carry out attacks. The parents of settler children should be held accountable under international law," Michaeli told IPS.
Israeli President Shimon Peres during a recent visit to London questioned the consequences of firm action. "Israel will find it difficult to evacuate the settlements without a civil war," he said.
Moshe Ma'oz, professor emeritus of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and Senior Fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, said that a crackdown on the settlers would depend on the next Israeli government.
"If Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is elected premier in the forthcoming elections there is more hope for the settlements to be dismantled, but if right-wing party Likud hawk Binyamin Netanyahu is elected, there is less chance.
"However, it will all depend on how much pressure the new American administration is willing to exert on Israel, whoever the next government is," Ma'oz told IPS.
"The future of a successful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict depends on the settlements and settlers being removed as outlined by international law. In turn a stable Middle East is contingent on this core contentious issue being resolved as it will have a domino effect on Israel's neighbors and the entire region," added Ma'oz.
Yossi Sarid, Israeli political commentator and former leader of the progressive and left-leaning Meretz party commented that high court rulings were one thing while reality was another.
"The High Court of Justice did pronounce judgment ordering the evacuation of the disputed house in Hebron within three days. But as the rulings of the court have recently become rulings for the Messiah to deal with when he comes -- who takes them seriously? The government therefore has to decide who it fears most -- the judges or the settlers."
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Albion Monitor December
5, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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