The spectacle stirred outrage in the Jewish state, where many view the settlers as a movement opposed to co-existence between Jews and Arabs, and hostile to the creation of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 

Lapid, a Holocaust survivor who lost his father to the Nazi genocide, said in a weekly commentary on Israel Radio that the acts of some Hebron settlers reminded him of persecution endured by Jews in his native Yugoslavia on the eve of the second world war.

 

Bitter persecution

 

"It was not crematoria or pogroms that made our life in the diaspora bitter before they began to kill us, but persecution, harassment, stone-throwing, damage to livelihood, intimidation, spitting and scorn," he said.

 

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"I was afraid to go to school, because of the little anti-Semites who used to lay in ambush on the way and beat us up. How is that different from a Palestinian child in Hebron?"

 

Hebron has been a frequent flashpoint in more than six years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting since the second intifada began in 2000.

 

Some 400 settlers live there, under heavy Israeli military guard, amid 150,000 Palestinians.

 

Settlers reject remarks

 

Hebron's settlers responded to Lapid's comments angrily.

 

"The man is obviously a very, very sick person, to compare the Jews in Hebron to barbarians and compare us to the Nazis," David Wilder, a spokesman for the settlers in Hebron, said.

 

Another community spokesman, Noam Arnon, played down the televised harassments as "fringe incidents," and told Israel Radio: "In six years, 37 Jews have been murdered in Hebron, and now they're preoccupied with curses?"

 

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, ordered a cabinet-level probe last week into Palestinian allegations that abuse by Hebron settlers is commonplace and routinely ignored by Israel.

 

Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defence minister, said he hoped for an Israeli crackdown against the settler "provocateurs", but Palestinian officials called for comprehensive action.

 

Call for action

 

Arif Jabari, Hebron's governor, said: "If they are serious about co-existence, the Israelis must take practical steps on the hundreds of daily violations against Palestinians in the old city."

 

Israeli "Peace Now" supporters protested on
Thursday against West Bank settlers [AFP]
Jabari's apparent pessimism was shared by Lapid, a former Israeli justice minister.

 

Lapid said: "We Jewish citizens of Israel wave a reprimanding finger at most [and] worse still, I tolerated this silently as justice minister too."

 

The World Court has branded the settlements illegal but many Jews claim a biblical birthright to the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 Middle East war.

 

Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, a move billed as breaking the diplomatic deadlock with the Palestinians. The subsequent rise of Hamas, a Palestinian group whose charter calls for the Jewish state's destruction, has hardened settler resolve not to leave the West Bank.

 

Lapid said while there was no comparing the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews died, with Palestinian suffering from Israel's policies, this did not mean Israelis could not be culpable.

 

"It is inconceivable for the memory of Auschwitz to warrant ignoring the fact that there are Jews among us who behave today towards Palestinians just like German, Hungarian, Polish and other anti-Semites behaved towards Jews."