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Demolition of illegal West Bank outpost sparks violent protest

AMONA, West Bank—Israeli security forces wielding clubs and water cannons worked with mounted police Wednesday to quash a rock-throwing melee by several thousand protesters who were trying to block the demolition of nine houses in an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank.

The protesters failed and the houses in the settlement of Amona were razed under court order.

Police said that at least 86 officers and 140 civilians were injured in the worst violence since Israel began dismantling settlements last summer in the Gaza Strip.

In a fierce confrontation that drew blood on both sides, the rioters—most of whom appeared to be in their teens—threw bricks, rocks, eggs, buckets of oil, gasoline and paint-filled balloons at the helmeted officers.

The officers used ladders and the uplifted shovels of large bulldozers to remove demonstrators from the flat, barricaded roofs of the one-story stone structures.

After equestrian teams charged, beating back the shoving crowd, police smashed through shuttered windows to get at protesters holed up indoors and heaved them outside.

Israeli Channel 2 reported that a 15-year-old suffered a fractured skull and was on a respirator in a medically induced coma.

The most seriously injured officer was knocked unconscious by a hurled concrete block. Another officer was stabbed in the stomach.

"Protest is legitimate, but boulders, concrete blocks and rocks on the heads of police and citizens is atrocious irresponsibility," police commander Ronny Ohana said.

At least 32 of the most violent protesters were arrested. Police said they also arrested people who were attempting to reach the area, which had been declared a closed military zone.

"The state has declared war on its own citizens," Amona settlement leader Orit Caspi said in a broadcast interview.

Ranaan Gissin, a spokesman for acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, strongly disputed that claim.

Gissin said he deplored the "unmitigated violence against law enforcement officers, who acted with great restraint considering what they faced."

Amona is one of more than 100 outposts set up by Jewish settlers in the past decade on land they claim as a biblical birthright. Palestinians claim it as part of a future independent state. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, and about 200,000 settlers live there amid about 2.2 million Palestinians.

"Even if you don't believe that God gave us this land, if we go back to the lines of 1967, the Palestinians will shoot at us from all these hills," said Yossi Feinberg, an Orthodox Jew who supported the rioters but stayed out of the fray.

Olmert has targeted about 24 more unauthorized outposts for removal in line with Israel's long-standing commitment under the U.S.-sponsored road map for resuming Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

Since the launch of the road map in 2003, the outpost issue has been bogged down in legal maneuvering. A government report released last year said Israel wasn't doing enough to meet its commitment, and in some cases government ministries were funneling state funds to the outposts.

Ariel Sharon, Israeli's prime minister, who's lying in a coma after a severe stroke, was an architect of settlement expansion, but he later decided that it was in Israel's interest to dismantle some of them. Olmert is expected to carry on that legacy in an effort to establish permanent, defensible borders.

"We have to have borders. If we can't do it in agreements with the Palestinians, we will do it on our own. What you saw today springs from that," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher.

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(Matza reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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