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Israel evacuates E1 protest village

Jan. 13, 2013 9:24 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 16, 2013 12:22 P.M.)
E1, West Bank (Reuters) -- Israeli security forces removed over 100 Palestinian protesters early on Sunday from Bab al-Shams, an impromptu tented community pitched in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel has earmarked for a controversial new settlement.

Israel's Supreme Court ruled on Friday that the Palestinian protest village, built in the geographically sensitive area known as E1, could remain for six days while the issue of the removal of the tents was being discussed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the meantime, ordered those gathered there to be evacuated. A police spokesman said the court allowed for the removal of the protesters even if the tents, for now, will stay.

Netanyahu's pledge last November to build settlements on E1 caused an outcry, with European diplomats warning it could kill off any hope of creating a contiguous Palestinian state.

The prime minister's office said in a statement on Saturday that the government was petitioning the court to retract its ruling on the outpost, and had instructed security forces to block off roads leading to the rocky desert terrain.

Hours later, at 2.30 a.m. Israeli police and border guard officers entered the compound and told a crowd of around 100 to leave the 20 large, steel-framed tents that were erected a day earlier in an effort to preserve the land for a future Palestinian state.

Those protesters who refused to leave were carried down the hill by Israeli officers and detained, but were not jailed. Israeli police vans took them to the West Bank town of Ramallah.

"Everyone was evacuated carefully and swiftly, without any injuries to officers or protesters," said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.

The popular committee said six Palestinians were treated at a Ramallah hospital having been injured during the evacuation.

Palestinian National initiative MP Mustafa Barghouti and eight other community activists were among those detained at the scene, witnesses said.

Palestinian activists criticized the raid and promised more protest camps in areas designated by Israel for settlements.

"The eviction and the exercise of force is another indication that Israel is defying the international consensus on the need to vacate occupied Palestinian land," Palestinian government spokesman Nour Odeh said.

The encampment's name, Bab al-Shams, which means "Gateway to the Sun" in Arabic, was taken from a novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury that tells the history of the Palestinians through a love story. Earlier, the writer called the protesters in solidarity.

For years, Israel froze building in E1, which currently houses only a police headquarters, after coming under pressure from former US President George W. Bush.

But Netanyahu recently announced plans to expand settlements after the Palestinians won de-facto statehood recognition at the UN General Assembly last year.

The Israeli premier said he shut down the protest camp to avoid "clashes."

"I immediately called for the area to be closed off so there would not be large gatherings there that could cause friction and breach the public order," he told Army Radio.

He vowed to build Israeli settlements in the area. "It will not happen immediately, you understand our bureaucratic process ... We will complete the planning an there will be building there," he told the radio station.

E1 covers 4.6 square miles and is seen as particularly important because it not only juts into the narrow "waist" of the West Bank, but backs onto East Jerusalem, the capital of the promised Palestinian state.

Ma'an staff in Bethlehem contributed to this report

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