E1, WEST BANK // Israel's prime minister yesterday shrugged off weekend Palestinian protests over the construction of a Jewish settlement that would sever the West Bank in half and prevent the creation a continguous Palestinian state, vowing to press on building new settler homes in a critical area.
Speaking to Israel's army radio, Benjamin Netanyahu insisted "there will be construction" of a new settlement in an empty stretch of land, known as E1, which could cut off Palestinians in the West Bank from their desired capital in East Jerusalem. His government expedited plans for 3,000 homes in the area last month, seen as punishment for the Palestinian upgrade in the United Nations as a non-member-observer state.
The premier's announcement yesterday came just hours after Israeli security forces evicted nearly 200 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators from a tent encampment built in E1 on Friday morning. Naming their makeshift community after a novel about Palestinian dispossession, Bab al Shams, or Gate of Sun, the protesters surprised Israeli authorities and earned headlines worldwide with their unorthodox tactics for protesting Israeli policies.
"What we managed to do was take the initiative away from the Israelis, and we did it by uniting Palestinians from all factions and parties and, at the same time, we demonstrated the power of non-violence," said Mustafa Barghouti, a one-time Palestinian presidential candidate and activist who participated in the demonstration.
"People see that it's effective, not least because we absolutely embarrassed the Israelis by exposing their apartheid system here."
Soon after Israel announced its E1 plans last month, the activists secretly began amassing funds and materials to build about 30 tents. Operating clandestinely so as to avoid detection by Israeli intelligence, several dozen also practised on Thursday evening how to quickly erect the tents.
Then, early Friday morning, they drove to E1 and began building Bab al Shams, assembling a local council, forming a media-relations department and hoping to make their community permanent.
"This was a collective effort across Palestine that required a lot of planning and serious mobilisation," said Irene Nasser, 30, a Palestinian activist who lives in Jerusalem.
It was also an effort to beat Israel at its own game of creating so-called irreversible "facts on the ground", in which settlers rapidly build mobile homes in occupied Palestinian land before receiving legal authorisation.
That tactic has been used since Israel took control of land now wanted for a Palestinan state - East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza - after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, subsequently filling the areas with a half-million settlers.
Despite a High Court injunction obtained before the weekend by the protesters' lawyers that temporarily prevented authorities from dismantling tents, Mr Netanyahu late Saturday ordered security personnel to evict the demonstrators.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday the state had argued against the High Court injunction by saying that "there is an urgent security need to evacuate the area of the people and tents".
The newspaper also reported that the tents had been pitched on land privately owned by Palestinians. Some 151 hectares of the 1,214 Israeli authorities had allotted for settlement construction in E1 is privately owned. Israel had declared the rest "state land".
However, despite the injunction, about 500 Israeli police and soldiers surrounded the tents and ordered the protesters to leave. Police beat those who peacefully resisted the orders on the head and body, Ms Nasser said, adding that six had to receive treatment in hospital.
"Four of the guys who were injured - had badly bruised faces," she said.
It was also Israel's tough response to unarmed demonstrators - sending in hundreds of weapons-wielding policemen and soldiers - that caught the attention of many onlookers.
"The most absurd thing was that the state went to court last night with a pressing, urgent security concern for public safety," said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer and expert on Israeli-Palestinian issues in Jerusalem. "What were they thinking? That these protesters would turn goats into doing seditious acts? The area is desert, it's isolated."
Abdallah Abu Rahmah, a non-violent activist from the West Bank village of Bi'lin said demonstrators had anticipated the Israeli response. But the protest still managed to attract an unprecedented grouping of Palestinian activists, including those from the West Bank, Jerusalem and inside Israel. That included Palestinians from major factions as well as small, grassroots groups that turned out to demonstrate against Israel's separation barrier across villages in the West Bank.
"We will continue doing this, using non-violent ways," said Mr Abu Rahmah, although he declined to comment on the details of upcoming demonstrations.
& Hugh Naylor on