JERUSALEM, JUNE 8 -- Israeli military authorities have cracked down on Jewish vigilantes who rampaged through a Palestinian refugee camp on the occupied West Bank over the weekend, arresting 13 and warning that they will deal harshly with people who take the law into their own hands.
The vigilantes, all of them residents of Jewish settlements in Hebron and nearby Kiryat Arba, fired shots, smashed windows and assaulted residents and Israeli soldiers late Saturday night in a raid on the Dehasia refugee camp outside Bethlehem. They were retaliating for an incident in which someone at the camp threw a stone at an Israeli bus last week, shattering a window and slightly injuring a woman.
Such incidents and vigilante reactions are not unusual around Dehasia, which is surrounded by a 20-foot chain-link fence that is patrolled 24 hours a day by soldiers. What makes this particular exchange unusual is the tough response of military officials, who have condemned settler violence in the past but rarely taken steps against those allegedly involved.
The new Army commander in the region, Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, ordered a full-scale probe, which led to the roundup of the 13 settlers last night and early this morning.
Mitzna condemned the raid in unusually strong language in interviews with the Israeli media, calling it "a contemptuous act" and pledging to arrest all of those involved.
He ridiculed settlers' claims that Palestinians had provoked the confrontation, telling reporters, "It's a shame that people who take the law into their own hands, who carry out such acts against innocent women, children and old people who were sleeping, don't have the courage to admit to what they've done."
Mitzna is already a controversial figure in Israel, because in 1982 he publicly opposed Israel's siege of Beirut and almost quit the military but was persuaded not to. Today, his superiors, including Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the Labor Alignment, rushed to his support in the face of right-wing criticism. Rabin called the vigilante raid "a scandal of the first order," and other Labor leaders joined in condemnation of the settlers, many of them members of Rabbi Meir Kahane's far-right Kach party.
But leaders of the Likud bloc, Labor's partner in Israel's fractious coalition government, were more restrained. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the bloc's leader, said he would await the results of a police investigation before commenting on the incident. Shamir is seeking to maintain a parliamentary majority against early elections, and he needs support from small right-wing parties that back settlers in confrontations with the Army.
Between 70 and 100 vigilantes arrived outside the camp in buses and cars Saturday night. They overran a small Army patrol that tried to bar their entrance. Some shot at water tanks on the roofs of houses, and others smashed car windshields and house windows. One car was set ablaze. Soldiers who tried to intervene were punched and kicked.
Residents of the camp responded by throwing rocks at the vigilantes, and residents complained today that the Army had spent more time firing tear gas at them than dispersing the settlers.
The rampage was condemned by many settlers' groups, including several leaders of Kiryat Arba, who said the settlers had violated unwritten rules against carrying weapons during a demonstration and assaulting soldiers. But others warned that further raids would occur and called for Rabin and Mitzna to resign.