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At least 90 hurt in clash over settlement

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT

JERUSALEM, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- At least 90 soldiers, police officers and squatters were injured Sunday in a government attempt to evacuate the illegal West Bank settlement of Havat Gilad.

However, as police officers and soldiers pulled back, awaiting new orders, hundreds of squatters began to repair the damage done to the site. The clashes have strained relations within Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition government.

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Participants in Sunday's cabinet meeting described it as an exceptionally stormy session with Sharon using his gavel to call his ministers to order, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer hinting he may resign.

"I've seen such hatred," Sharon told his quarreling ministers. "Everybody hates here and this is one of the most terrible things," he added according to a participant, who spoke to United Press International on condition of anonymity.

The illegal settlement, Havat Gilad, southwest of Nablus, is named after Gilad Zar, a settler security officer who was killed by Palestinian militants. Zar's brother, Itai, moved his wife and two children to the area and illegally established a farm that Defense Minister Ben Eliezer is determined to remove.

Havat Gilad is one of 20 illegal settlements the minister wants to evacuate. Most of the sites evacuated so far were uninhabited and their removal was peaceful.

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The Zars, however, are well known settlers. Gilad and Itai's father, Moshe, is a prominent land dealer who has bought large tracts of land in the West Bank.

Israeli hardliners want to keep the West Bank and Havat Gilad have become a symbol for resisting evacuation. According to Adiel Mintz, the council of settlers' secretary general, more than 1,000 people went to back the Zars.

A confrontation began last Wednesday and ended, temporarily, when the Zars said they would leave. Hardliners stayed on and Saturday night hundreds of squatters clashed with security officers sent to remove structures from the site. The army, which failed to remove a shed and containers, returned to the illegal settlement on Sunday and the fighting resumed.

Squatters, mostly young people, gathered round and atop the shed and containers.

Trying to avoid a confrontation the soldiers and policemen set out barehanded. They tried to drag squatters away, sometimes helping them down the roofs and sometimes pushing them off. Squatters hurled stones and charged at the security officers.

One young demonstrator, in a knitted skullcap and a religious shawl, pleaded with a security man to refuse to obey orders.

"Your parents fought here! Aren't you ashamed? This is the Land of Israel! Two thousand years we've waited" until we were able to return here, he said. The youngster was alluding to the centuries that passed since the Romans exiled the Jews from Palestine and until the Jews returned and occupied the West Bank during the 1967 war.

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Demonstrators prevented tractors from reaching the shed the soldiers were trying to remove. Eventually a military vehicle backed into the shed, knocking it down.

Having failed to remove two containers, police officers cut them to make them uninhabitable.

Israeli TV stations said 90 people were injured in the fighting. Police Chief Inspector Galit Winograd said 43 policemen were wounded and 12 of them were evacuated to a local hospital. There were no official army and settler casualty figures.

Winograd said the police detained 15 people.

At night some 300 squatters were reportedly welding the structures back.

The issue seemed to tear at the coalition government Sharon has been trying to maintain. Right wing ministers claimed Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer, who heads the dovish Labor Party, reneged on a secret agreement with the settlers.

They said the agreement allowed the Zars to work the land during the daytime. Sharon said he had been under the impression they would be allowed to keep a shed at the site.

Likud Minister Zahi Hanegbi told UPI that he was told that Ben-Eliezer changed his mind after the agreement was publicized. Ben-Eliezer feared a backlash from doves in the Labor Party, Hanegbi argued. Labor Party elections are due on Nov. 19 and public opinion polls show the doves winning.

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Infrastructure Minister Effie Eitam, who heads the settler-back National Religious Party, Sunday criticized Ben-Eliezer's moves and accused him of being stupid, a coward and a liar.

Ben-Eliezer denied any agreement with the settlers. The Defense Minister's office reportedly said that Eitam, who insisted there was an agreement, was "lying knowingly."

Labor Party ministers accused the settlers of rebellion and trying to force their minority-backed ideology on the majority

According to one cabinet member, Ben-Eliezer told the ministers that since Saturday night people have been calling his home, cursing and threatening his life.

"I am considering (whether to) continue my presence as Defense Minister," he said according to two participants in the cabinet session.

Sharon responded: "One must know how to withstand that. People stood near my home with signs 'Sharon murderer' and, 'Sharon war criminal.'"

Sharon and some Likud ministers offered Ben-Eliezer at least tepid backing. The prime minister sharply criticized squatters who attacked soldiers and policemen.

Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, also of Sharon's Likud Party, said the government would not lend a hand to any illegal settlement. "If settlers hadn't gone there, they would have been no need to evacuate them," he said.

But other Likud ministers advocated a time out and a negotiated arrangement that would allow for a continued presence at the site.

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Sharon is scheduled to meet with Labor Party ministers this week. Industry Minister Dalia Itzik, a Laborite, said they would demand Sharon sack Minister Eitam.

She did not say what Labor would do if Sharon rejects the demand. Itzik has been pushing for Labor to quit the government, but other Labor party ministers want to stay in the coalition.

Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh, a Laborite very close to Ben-Eliezer, said the quarrel over the settlements' evacuation proves Labor should stay in the coalition. If not for Labor there would be no attempt to remove the illegal settlements, he implied.

Sneh told UPI he expected his party to stay in the coalition "if they won't prevent the Defense Minister from acting."

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