The unarmed uniformed police were directing traffic in the town's Bab al-Zawiya district on Tuesday when the soldiers arrived, beat them and took them away in military vehicles, the AFP news agency reported.

The soldiers fired tear gas after an angry crowd of Palestinians began throwing stones.

An Israeli military source said the men were detained for questioning after refusing to leave an area where they were not allowed and would shortly be released.

About 500 Jewish settlers live under heavy Israeli military protection in Hebron, home to 150,000 Palestinians.

Separately, Israeli police said on Tuesday they were investigating accusations that Jewish settlers killed sheep belonging to Palestinians with poison in a bid to drive Palestinians off their land in the West Bank.

Deadly chemical

A settler spokeswoman denied the Palestinian allegations that Jews deposited wheat pellets laced with a deadly chemical on grazing land near Hebron, killing 20 of their sheep. She accused Palestinians of poisoning the land as a provocation.

Hebron's governor said poisoning
has led to the death of 20 sheep

It was the latest chapter in a history of bitter conflict between rightist settlers who stake a biblical claim to occupied territory and Palestinians who want it for an independent state.

The Palestinian governor of Hebron, Arif al-Jabari, said the poisoning was part of a systematic attempt by settlers to clear the land of Palestinians.

"This is an escalation. They should leave our land," he said. "We will not stay silent. It led to the death of 20 sheep and poisoning of 82 others that are fighting for their lives."

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quraya said: "This is a very grave issue."

'Criminal act'

Palestinians and human-rights groups have frequently accused settlers of vigilante violence and acts of harassment aimed at driving them off the land, but say investigations are rare.

A spokesman for Israeli police in the occupied territory said they had begun an investigation. Israeli military administration spokesman Shlomo Dror said settlers could be responsible but an investigation was needed to determine that.

"Some people are trying to make the lives of Palestinians worse"

Shlomo Dror,
Israeli military spokesman

"Some people are trying to make the lives of Palestinians worse," Dror said, alluding to ultra-nationalist Jews in the Hebron area of the southern West Bank. "This is a criminal act."

Both Palestinian and Israeli officials said sheep poisoning was unprecedented. "This is the first time we have seen this kind of act with poison," Dror said.

"We have seen in the past violence against property, like cutting trees and destroying houses and cars, or sometimes even violence against people ... . This is very bad," he said, alluding to settler attacks on nearby Palestinian inhabitants.

Settler response

Settler spokeswoman Emily Amrusy accused Palestinians of spreading the poison as a provocation. She said settlers had also filed a complaint with police, although no animals belonging to settlers had fallen sick or died.

Palestinian farmers are used to
seeing standing crops damaged

"We are quite sure that these acts are not from the Jewish people but from the Palestinians," she said.

Ramzi Sansur, a Palestinian toxicologist who examined the pellets in a Bir Zeit university laboratory, said the chemical, Fluoroacetamide, was extremely toxic and ordinarily used to kill rodents in sewers.

Palestinian shepherds whose sheep graze in the area said they saw settlers from a distance appearing to throw substances into the fields in late March.

Days later, their sheep began to fall sick, they said. Some had convulsions and died while others appeared drowsy and had difficulty walking. Other animals including gazelles and migratory birds also died, the Palestinian toxicologist said.