Palestinians doubt Israeli commitment to remove settlers

Friday, June 6, 2003

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leaders expressed doubts Thursday about Israel's commitment to remove dozens of unauthorized Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank as required by a new Mideast peace plan.

Jewish settlers have pledged to resist the dismantling of any of the more than 100 outposts that have been established since 1998 -- at times with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's encouragement -- to prevent the handover of land to the Palestinians.

Palestinians consider the outposts on West Bank hilltops efforts to further expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and create new obstacles to a Palestinian state. They say all Israeli settlements are illegal encroachment on their land.

At a Mideast summit in Jordan on Wednesday, Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush endorsed the internationally backed "road map" for peace, a blueprint for ending 32 months of violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005.

The first phase requires Israel to dismantle an estimated 60 outposts established since March 2001, when Sharon took office. Sharon has said he was prepared to carry out the steps required by the road map.

But the prime minister, a major settlement builder throughout his political career, also is wary of intense opposition from a key constituency: the 230,000 Jewish settlers living in 150 more established settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Settlers see the removal of outposts as the beginning of a slippery slope that could end with the removal of their settlements in a final peace deal.

Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a Sharon confidant, said in an interview published Thursday in the Haaretz daily newspaper that the prime minister was willing to uproot 17 veteran settlements to enable the creation of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity.

In what was perhaps an effort to strike a balance between the two sides, Sharon announced at the summit that an undisclosed number of outposts would be dismantled.

Signaling that it may avoid full compliance, Israel has said some of the outposts serve a security function -- overlooking roads, for example -- and should stay.

However, Sharon adviser Zalman Shoval said Thursday that if the Palestinians rein in militant groups that have attacked Israelis, then the security outposts could become unnecessary and would be removed down the line. Shoval has said the first outposts would be removed in coming days.

Palestinian leaders said Thursday that was not good enough.

"When the time for implementation of the road map comes, we expect that they will take down all the outposts," Palestinian Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amr said. "We are not talking about symbolic acts that may have been necessary before committing to the road map."

The Peace Now group, which opposes settlement in the West Bank, says 117 unauthorized outposts have been created since 1998. Some are uninhabited while others consist of a few trailers with less than a dozen inhabitants. Their combined population is about 700, the group said.

Peace Now official Dror Etkes said Thursday he believes Sharon mainly will dismantle uninhabited outposts, but will throw in a few inhabited ones -- a move the settlers are sure to protest -- to prove he is serious.

"Sharon needs a good fight in order to come to Bush and say, 'I'm sweating for you,"' Etkes said.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr said Thursday that even if Sharon were to dismantle all outposts, it still would leave a more significant requirement of the road map unfulfilled: Israel's obligation in the plan's first phase to freeze all Jewish settlement construction.

"Settlements will be the real test for the Israeli credibility in implementing the obligation of the road map after the Aqaba summit," Amr said.

Yet Shoval indicated that might never happen.

"Israel will not abandon the settlers," he said Thursday. "Dealing with the illegal and newly established outposts at this time will give the Israeli government and the Israeli people greater strength and greater force and greater justification to insist on the position and permanence of the settlements once we approach final status negotiations."

Tens of thousands of Jewish settlers and their supporters protested against the road map in downtown Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Fearing a potential civil conflict over the issue, a legislator from the dovish Meretz party, Ran Cohen, introduced legislation this week requiring gun owners to swear loyalty to the country and promise not to turn weapons against the army or the police.

He told a parliamentary committee that an estimated 10,000 armed settlers pose a serious threat and many of them belong to extremist groups.

Apparently taking such threats seriously, officials tightened security around Sharon to prevent possible settler attacks, a high-ranking security official said Thursday on condition of anonymity.

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