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Settlers Resist Evacuation from West Bank

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Israeli security forces today used armored bulldozers to smash their way into two settlements on the West Bank. Radical Jews in the neighboring settlements of Sanur and Homesh had dug in for a final showdown. Many Israelis consider the West Bank to be the heart of the biblical land of Israel. NPR's Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem has been following the withdrawal operation and joins us now to talk about today's developments.

Linda, what's the latest from these two settlements?

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Well, in the settlement of Sanur, Israeli troops stormed a small synagogue belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch or Chabad, and an old British fortress where extremists had been holed up. They stormed in, forcing the doors open with a circular saw. Inside the synagogue, most of the youths were sitting on the floor. The protestors, some of them walked out and some of them were carried out. In Homesh, some of the youths threw paint at the troops. They also have thrown flour and ketchup and other things. At least so far, however, there has not been the kind of violence that Israeli troops were concerned about. They said there's about 2,000 people in these two settlements. There are two others that are already empty. So the focus is only on these two settlements. Most of the people are not from the settlements. The people in the settlements, most of them, left previously or have already left this morning. There are about 2,000; some of them are known extremists and believed to have guns. At least so far, the evacuation has been proceeding peacefully.

MONTAGNE: Security forces had, though, anticipated that this particular evacuation would be the most difficult phase of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and those four northern West Bank settlements. Why is that?

GRADSTEIN: Well, it's because of the people who were there. They're known as sort of the hilltop youth. These are young, many of them, you know, teen-agers or in their early 20s who have been living in unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, and they have been threatening violence. They have said, `We have guns and we are going to use them.' Now residents in the settlements say that they are trying to make sure that this doesn't happen. The residents in the settlement have handed over their guns to the army, but there was a fear that because of these known extremists that they might either open fire on troops or go into neighboring Palestinian villages and attack Palestinians as a provocation. There was some vandalism in Palestinian villages overnight, and there were hundreds of policemen chasing these kids through the Palestinian villages trying to catch them and take them out of there. There is a feeling also that after Gaza, some of these youths say that, you know, `Gaza is bad enough, but once we let the Israeli troops start evacuating the West Bank, who knows where it could end?' So there's also this feeling of kind of a last stand.

MONTAGNE: And once the West Bank settlements are empty, what happens?

GRADSTEIN: Well, in the West Bank, the Israeli military will still be controlling that area. It's one of the issues that is on the agenda between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have asked for control of that area, saying it would give them, you know, much more freedom of movement in the West Bank. But at least so far, Israel has said no because some of these areas are fairly close to Israeli population centers in northern Israel. So the army will control it, but the Palestinians will have some control but not complete control.

In Gaza, in contrast, that entire area will be given over to the Palestinian Authority. Israeli bulldozers have already been knocking down the houses in 13 of the settlements in Gaza and that operation is expected to last a couple of weeks. And the Palestinians will have complete control over Gaza, and they intend to build high-rise apartment buildings in the areas where the Jewish settlements were to help alleviate the housing shortage in Gaza where more than 1.3 million Palestinians lived crowded into a very small area.

MONTAGNE: Linda, thanks very much.

GRADSTEIN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Linda Gradstein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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