Before dawn today, the faltering dream of a Greater Land of Israel and the determination of Prime Minister Ehud Barak collided at this remote outpost on a West Bank hilltop.
More than 1,000 Israeli soldiers and police started arriving at the point of impact shortly before 4 a.m., pushing past barricades burning in the early morning mist and dragging away ultranationalist Jews, including some who were in a makeshift synagogue.
"It's like in the Holocaust, when they loaded the Jews onto the trains," shouted one teen-age girl, who had been bundled onto a bus with wire mesh windows. "Look at yourselves," she yelled at the troops.
In the past few days, 300 to 400 Israeli settlers had pitched tents, thrown up roadblocks and dug in at this settlement 30 miles south of Jerusalem, a place of breathtaking views and, suddenly, immense symbolic importance.
The settlers' stand has emerged as the first serious test of Barak's resolve to dismantle a dozen settlements from among 42 founded by ultranationalists over the past year. And it is a test of their own resolve to establish themselves and prevent more West Bank land from being turned over to the Palestinians in an eventual overall peace agreement.
The confrontation thus concerns more than a hilltop. It is about sharply conflicting ambitions, and visions, of Israel's future.
On one side are the hard-line Jewish settlers, who insist on staking their claim to all of the Biblical Land of Israel and blocking, to the extent they can, the birth of an independent Palestinian state on that same land. Although that was government policy in the past, the hard-line settlers now represent a minority in Israel, where a large portion of the public supports the idea of territorial compromise as part of a peace agreement.
Even the National Religious Party, traditionally the settlers' bastion, had urged the people at Havat Maon to quietly pull up stakes and go home. But the settlers here hope their passion will win them points with and sympathy from the Israeli public.
"I want confrontation," said Shimon Riklin, spokesman for a group of young settlers calling themselves Next Generation. "I want all the world to see the Israeli army take Jews and throw them in the trucks and take them away. This will spotlight the evacuation and show what it means."
Many of the settlers who were carried off today, or who walked away with their children and belongings, vowed to return, even though the police and soldiers said they planned to destroy all the outpost's buildings.
"For 2,000 years we waited and returned, so why won't we wait another week or two and return?" asked settler Aharon Ben-David, 28.
Rachel, a 21-year-old settler with two children, who would not give her last name, said: "We are religious Jews and we are fulfilling, thank God, what God has told us, and what he told us is this entire country is ours, and it won't be Ehud Barak who tells us where to settle."
Few of the soldiers involved in the evacuation appeared to be religious, and almost none wore skullcaps. "This is a sensitive military operation because we had no enemy," said regional military commander Col. Noam Tibon.
Barak's government was elected in May with a mandate to reach a peace accord with the Palestinians. Although Barak has indicated that most of the 170,000 Jews living on West Bank land occupied in 1967 should remain, his goal of peace with the Palestinians presupposes that thousands will have to depart their homes. The prime minister has said Havat Maon, which sits in an Israeli army firing zone, falls in that category of disbandment because it was established without proper permits. He cut short a trip to Paris on Tuesday and returned home to deal with the crisis at Havat Maon, saying it would be forcibly evacuated if necessary.
The Palestinians, who bitterly oppose Havat Maon and other new West Bank outposts, are largely absent from the Israeli debate, even though they sit across from Israel at the negotiating table. They have long maintained, however, that the settlements violate international law and create obstacles to an eventual peace accord by making it more difficult for Israel to relinquish West Bank territory.
In a deal clinched last month with the leadership of the main settlers' council, Barak decreed that 12 of the new West Bank outposts should be evacuated. Most consisted of nothing more than a few mobile homes on a hill. Several had no permanent residents. Still, it took more than three weeks of fits, starts and foot-dragging before the residents of 11 of the outposts packed their bags and moved--some of them no farther than to the next hilltop.
From the start, Havat Maon was different. Located 10 miles south of Hebron, in an area dotted with militant and religious settlements, Havat Maon attracted an uncompromising handful who vowed not to be dislodged by government decrees or gentle persuasion.
The original residents--four families and a handful of bachelors--proclaimed themselves members of a new group of twenty-something settlers. They accused the old-guard settler leadership of going soft by caving into the government.
"We're against any withdrawal, even from one centimeter, from the Land of Israel," said Riklin, the Next Generation spokesman. "I want him [Barak] to know that it's going to be very difficult to evacuate even a small place like this."
That kind of talk stiffened Barak's resolved and alarmed the traditional settler leadership, which has tried to adopt a nonconfrontational approach. "Maon is beyond reasoning," said Elyakim Haetzni, an outspoken senior member of the old-guard settler movement.
As the showdown neared a climax this week, hundreds of young settlers flooded into Havat Maon, most of them religious and appalled by the idea of compromise. They brought bongo drums and guitars, clarinets and amplifiers, giving the place a kind of Woodstock atmosphere, even as army helicopters circled overhead.
Meshulam Ben-Meir, 40, a Brooklyn-born psychologist who has lived in Israel for 15 years, planned to be at the center of the fray.
"My father is a Holocaust survivor," Ben-Meir said before the soldiers arrived. "When he was a young child, the Germans came and pulled him out of his home and sent him off to a camp. When I came here, it was under the understanding that that would never happen to me, and I think it's absurd to have Jews do it to me now."
Jewish settlers began building in the West Bank shortly after Israel took it from Jordan in the 1967 war. Over the years, the pace of building intensified. The Jews who live in the West Bank are scattered among some 144 settlements large and small, sometimes no more than a stone's throw from the nearest Arab village.
Nearly 2 million Palestinians also live in the West Bank, and it is on this land, together with the Gaza Strip, that Yasser Arafat hopes to proclaim a new Palestinian state next year. Barak is not opposed to the birth of a Palestinian state, as long as it comes about on Israel's terms and within mutually agreed borders.
And Arafat has suggested strongly that an unspecified number of smaller, more remote and difficult-to-defend Jewish settlements will have to be evacuated to accommodate the new state.
CAPTION: Israeli soldiers forcibly remove a Jewish settler from an illegal settlement on a West Bank hilltop.