The biblical city of Hebron burned late into the night Thursday, as militant Israeli settler youth went on a violent rampage through Palestinian neighborhoods, burning the property of, shooting at and beating random Palestinians they came across. The militants were reacting to an eviction earlier that day by Israeli security forces of settlers occupying a Hebron house whose ownership is in dispute. Initial indications were that the rioting settlers had injured at least 15 Palestinians, two or three of whom had suffered gunshot wounds, and Israeli security officials were on high alert to prevent any attempted settler terrorist attacks on Palestinian mosques or other facilities. Israeli security officials told TIME of their fear that the current confrontation could prompt some militants to try to emulate Baruch Goldstein, the settler lionized by extremists for his massacre of 29 Muslims in a shooting spree at the tomb of Abraham in 1994.
Thursday's rioting began after Israeli security forces launched a surprise raid on a house in the Palestinian part of Hebron occupied by settlers whose eviction had been ordered by the Supreme Court. Young settlers from the militant, although largely formless and leaderless Hilltop Youth movement had flocked to Hebron vowing to resist the eviction at all cost. If the court order was implemented, they warned, Israel would experience the trauma of Jew killing Jew. They also threatened that the price tag of an eviction would take the form of random violence against Palestinian innocents. But by catching the diehards in the house unprepared the raid was launched at midday rather than at night, when the settlers had expected it would come and when there would be hundreds more braced for confrontation inside the disputed building the Israeli police and military averted the first threat. The eviction went off relatively smoothly, although eight people were slightly injured, one of them a police officer who had acid thrown in his face by a settler militant. But the extremists delivered on their promise to vent their rage on Palestinian innocents. (See images of West Bank settlers battling eviction in 2006.)
The Hebron events are unlikely to affect the outcome of Israel's election in February. Polls show conservative Likud Party candidate and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding a solid lead over acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak who ordered the Hebron raid on the same day his Labor Party held its primary election running a very distant third. But their impact on other players in the West Bank may be profound: the actions of the Hilltop Youth were condemned and strongly discouraged by the long-established settler leadership of the Yesha Council, who recognized that young settlers being seen to use violence against the Israeli state and randomly attacking Palestinian civilians could turn Israeli public opinion strongly against the settler movement. But the young settlers at the heart of the Hebron confrontation have shown themselves to be beyond the control of the traditional settler leaders and of the rabbis associated with the movement, although their actions could carry very negative consequences for the settlement enterprise as a whole.
The other big loser from Thursday's Hebron riots may be the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas. Last month, a U.S.-trained battalion of the authority's security men was deployed in Hebron to great fanfare, underscoring Abbas' intention to assert control of a city whose political sympathies are with the militant Hamas movement. As settlers rampaged through Palestinian neighborhoods on Thursday night, Palestinian civilians were crying out for protection from those meant to ensure their security. But the PA security forces were nowhere to be found, under strict orders from their commanders to avoid confrontation with the settlers, the containing of whom was the job of the Israeli authorities a job not done particularly effectively. Leaving those neighborhoods unprotected in the face of the rampaging settlers may undermine the PA and strengthen Hamas.
The militant settler threat had prompted the Israeli government to hesitate for three weeks before implementing the court order on the Hebron eviction, but whether the raid emboldens the government to act against other settlements constructed outside of Israeli law remains to be seen and will be determined, in no small part, by how events in Hebron unfold in the coming hours and days. The question may become somewhat moot if the current indicators on the likely outcome of February's election hold true, because Netanyahu has an ideological aversion to ceding territory in the West Bank and has made no secret of his disdain for the U.S.-sponsored peace talks between the current government and the PA.