With West Bank withdrawal looming; Israel prepares to move on outposts


JERUSALEM — In a first major test of Israel’s plans for a large-scale West Bank withdrawal, the government is gearing up for a showdown with extremists in four unauthorized outposts.

If successful, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert intends to go on to evacuate all 24 outposts built since March 2001, fulfilling an Israeli commitment under the “road map” peace plan.

The anticipated confrontation with settlers could be highly significant.

It will give a first indication of whether Olmert has the clout to carry out a subsequent pullback entailing the evacuation of 50,000-100,000 settlers, and it will have major implications for the rule of law in the West Bank.

In addition, when all 24 of the illegal outposts are dismantled, Israel will be able to claim that it has carried out its part of the road map’s opening phase, and can demand with greater moral authority that the Palestinians meet their commitment to dismantle terrorist militias.

In mid-June, Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the Israel Defense Forces to be ready within two weeks to evacuate unauthorized West Bank outposts.

Peretz has made it clear that he intends to start with four problematic outposts where radical young settlers have assaulted soldiers and policemen as well as Israeli and Palestinian civilians. In a meeting with settler leaders Sunday, Peretz said they would be ill-advised to make a stand for these unruly groups.

The outposts slated for early evacuation are Maon Farm near Hebron and Arusi Farm, Skali Farm and Hill 722 near Nablus.

Settlers at Maon Farm are suspected of harassing Palestinian children on their way to school — the children now receive a daily IDF escort — and settlers from Arusi Farm are thought to be behind attacks on Palestinian workers at a nearby quarry where a mobile home, two trucks and a generator were torched.

Peretz hopes to show that, as the minister directly responsible for what goes on in the territories, he won’t tolerate settler violations of the law. First up will be Maon Farm, with the evacuation expected to take place before the end of June.

In all, there are 105 unauthorized outposts. Two dozen were built after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised the Bush administration in March 2001 that there would be no more.

It’s these 24 that Israel undertook to dismantle under the April 2003 road map, but nothing was done because the Palestinians did not meet their commitment to stop terrorism against Israel. Later, when Israel decided to move unilaterally regardless of terrorism, Sharon deferred the outpost issue so as not to jeopardize the far more significant pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer.

Now the Olmert government wants go ahead quickly, partly to signal its seriousness about plans to withdraw from most of the West Bank, partly to show the international community that it’s acting in good faith and partly to send a law-and-order message to settlers.

Settler leaders hope to minimize the damage. The fact that the Gaza pullout went ahead despite their efforts to scuttle it is seen by the settler community as a major failure, and has forced them to rethink their resistance tactics.

Some settlers say the lesson is that there should be more coordination with the government; others that resistance should be much tougher.

For now, the Judea and Samaria Settlers’ Council hopes to negotiate a deal with the government under which settlers voluntarily evacuate some of the unauthorized outposts in return for the legalization of others. The proposal was raised in Sunday’s meeting with Peretz, and almost certainly will be followed up in subsequent talks.

But there’s a hitch: Settler leaders can’t vouch for the actions of radicals at the outposts. In a February confrontation over the destruction of illegal homes at the Amona outpost, radicals paid little heed to the council, and clashes with police were fierce.

There’s no guarantee that radical settlers at the four outposts slated for initial evacuation would cooperate with moderate settler leaders. On the contrary, young radicals across the West Bank are threatening even worse violence than at Amona, and also say they’ll try to delay any move with legal petitions.

Police and top IDF brass say they wouldn’t be surprised if evacuating forces encounter armed resistance. As a result, the Shin Bet security service is stepping up its efforts to gather intelligence on Jewish extremists.

Peretz, the neophyte defense minister, will be the key figure in handling the different pressures involved. He has made it clear to settlers that he’s ready to deal on the big picture, but won’t negotiate over the four outposts he considers inhabited by serial lawbreakers.

He also will probably insist, at the least, on the evacuation of all 24 outposts established after March 2001.

The outcome could be important on two levels — as a curtain raiser for the bigger West Bank pullout and as a stage for Peretz to build up his credentials as a national leader.