Israel begins tearing down some settlement outposts
AMONA, West Bank -- Israeli soldiers began tearing down settlement outposts in the West Bank on Monday -- one of Israel's obligations under a new Mideast peace plan -- but settlers threatened to turn out by the thousands to frustrate the effort.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas rejected Palestinian criticism of his peace overtures to Israel, saying he was trying to end his people's suffering and foster creation of an independent state.
Under the "road map" peace plan, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is required to remove scores of outposts in the West Bank, some empty and many others inhabited by just a few people. The Palestinians are supposed to disarm militants and ensure an end to attacks against Israelis.
Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed Monday's operation. "I hope that in discharging this commitment, they would be able to remove these unauthorized outposts in a peaceful way," Powell said during a visit to Santiago, Chile.
Sharon faced settler anger as removal of the outposts got under way, with Israeli troops pulling down two empty trailers that made up the Neve Erez South outpost near the Palestinian town of Ramallah.
The military pulled down a water tower at the Amona outpost. More than 100 people -- mainly children -- from a nearby Jewish settlement rushed over and blocked the road with stones and a human chain, preventing soldiers from hauling the 15-foot-tall tower away on a truck.
"Ariel Sharon is an old man who changed his way and now he has surrendered to terror," said Daniel Cassuto, a resident of the nearby Ofra settlement.
An army statement said unauthorized structures were removed from five outposts on Monday. Israel Radio said early Tuesday that four others were dismantled, one by settlers. All were uninhabited.
Settlers said they would put up stiffer resistance at several populated outposts slated for removal.
"We have thousands, even tens of thousands, who are ready to fight," said settler leader Adi Mintz, adding that the struggle would be nonviolent.
About 220,000 settlers live in 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, lands occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state. The outposts generally are set up on hills near an established settlement in hopes of providing a basis for a larger enclave.
Palestinians were not impressed by Monday's actions.
"Sharon is playing a game of deception through the evacuation of some of the empty trailers in order to give legitimacy to the tens of settlements he established," Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said.
In violence Monday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians in an exchange of fire near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza after nightfall, the military said.
At last week's summit, Abbas called for an end to attacks on Israelis, but militants rebuffed that by raiding an army post in Gaza on Sunday and killing four soldiers. Three militants were killed.
"We must do our utmost to end the bloodshed ... and continue with the political process so we can convince the world that this is our path," Abbas said on Monday in response.
In his first news conference since taking office April 30, Abbas said the road map, which envisions an end to 32 months of violence and creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, was the only way to get Israel to free Palestinian prisoners, ease travel restrictions and stop demolishing homes.
"I am trying to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people and get a foothold on the path that will lead us to a Palestinian state," he said.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had joined in the criticism of the summit, but Abbas said Monday he coordinated every move with Arafat.
Under the road map, Israel has to dismantle dozens of outposts established since Sharon came to power in March 2001. According to Peace Now, there are 102 outposts with 1,000 residents, including 62 built in the past two years. Israeli and U.S. officials also say there are about 100 outposts, most built since March 2001.
Israel TV said the government has listed 94 outposts, but did not give a breakdown of those built before and after March 1, 2001.
Sharon, a major settlement builder, never promised explicitly to remove all the outposts and has acknowledged he has differences with the United States on the issue. His aides have said a distinction would be made between outposts considered legal and illegal, suggesting there would be less than full compliance.
Army commanders met Monday with settler leaders, gave them a list of outposts -- 15, mostly uninhabited ones, according to media reports -- and asked them to remove the sites voluntarily. Settlers said they would not cooperate.
"If we are evacuated, we'll return the night after and establish 10 new outposts," said Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settler spokesman.
In a joint statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Bush on Monday praised the prospects for peace in the Middle East since the launch of the "road map" at a three-way summit last week, the Kremlin said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Moscow on Monday and urged Russia to play a key role in the process by using its traditionally strong relations with Arab countries to "help convince the Palestinians of the need to end the violence and terror."
AP correspondents Ravi Nessman and Lefteris Pitarakis contributed to this report from Ramallah and Neve Erez.