For each illegal outpost taken down, another seems to go up

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

SHVUT RACHEL, West Bank -- On a rocky West Bank hilltop overlooking the Jordan River Valley, a teenager with dust-matted hair dug a well Monday to supply five mobile homes put up a week ago in violation of a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Jewish settlers appear to be establishing unauthorized outposts faster than the Israeli military tears them down. Monitors said nine new outposts have gone up even as troops removed eight tiny hilltop enclaves in the past two weeks -- a hesitant first step implementing the "road map" peace plan.

"This is one big show," said Dror Etkes of the anti-settlement Peace Now group. "There is no dismantling of outposts. Whenever one is taken down, the next day another one goes up."

Most are little more than a dusty cargo container or uninhabited trailer placed on top of a hill in a display of ownership.

But at the enclave near the settlement of Shvut Rachel, about 12 miles south of the Palestinian city of Nablus, residents appear to be digging in for the long haul. Cables running up the hillside supply electricity for a flood light and at least one home, while a gravel road links the outpost to the nearest highway.

The families moved here a week ago from a nearby settlement, according to the teenager who had dug the well and emerged from the trailer with cups of coffee for his visitors. He refused give his name or answer further questions.

Under the road map peace plan, a blueprint for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, Israel, among other steps, must take down unauthorized settlement outposts set up in the West Bank since March 2001.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has conditionally accepted the plan. However, many observers doubt Sharon has changed his position give he is an ex-general who has spent decades promoting the settlements and trying to tighten Israel's grip on the West Bank and Gaza.

On Sunday, Sharon suggested in comments to his Cabinet ministers that construction in settlements could continue if it was done quietly...despite the road map ban.

Soldiers at a checkpoint within sight of this outpost appeared to take no interest in the building activity.

The government will not give exact figures on the number of unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. Peace Now -- consulted by embassies and the government's own security forces for information on settlements -- has identified 62 new outposts among a total of 103 set up since 1996.

Last week, in front of the world's media, soldiers and police got into bloody fist fights with settlers as they dismantled the first inhabited outpost -- a collection of tents and makeshift buildings called Mitzpeh Yitzhar.

Critics say the drawn-out occasional evacuations are largely a charade aimed at easing pressure on Israel, creating the appearance of compliance with the road map peace plan -- underscoring the opposition to the evacuation program -- while basically changing nothing because settlers quickly establish new outposts.

Near the Maale Michmas settlement, scraps of wood litter a hilltop where bulldozers razed an uninhabited outpost more than a week ago. But on the next hill, a dusty trailer strewn with broken furniture and pieces of paper already heralds the establishment of a new outpost.

"This is how it starts," said Etkes of Peace Now. "In a few weeks or months from now, we might find several containers with people living in them."

Settler leaders do not deny the charge.

"We don't give exact information about the new outposts (but) we promised that if the government takes down the outposts, we will put in new ones," said Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settler spokesman. As for the road map, he said, "we want to stop (its) implementation."

Many Orthodox Jews among the settlers believe Israel has a God-given right to the West Bank. Others believe new settlements are vital to Israel's security, establishing a presence along the roads where Israelis have been killed in Palestinian ambushes and in the hills overlooking their homes.

For Tehila Cohen, a secular Jew from Jerusalem, moving to the West Bank four years ago was a way of fulfilling her dream of a self-sufficient life within a tight, rural community. To her, the Neve Erez settlement is no more occupied Palestinian territory than any other part of Israel.

"If people can live happily in Tel Aviv, and they don't think it is occupied, then I don't see any difference here," she said. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war but never formally annexed it.

Many other Israelis oppose the settlement effort as blocking hopes of peace and, ultimately, dooming their nation as a Jewish state.

And for Palestinians, all Jewish settlements -- the 150 veteran communities where about 220,000 Israelis live in addition to the outposts -- are illegal encroachments on land they claim for their own state.

The Israeli government denies that new outposts amount to building new settlements.

Raanan Gissin, an aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, insisted in an interview with Associated Press Television News that the only building taking place was within the pre-March 2001 settlements.

But even that is supposed to be stopped under a road map. Gissin said Israel does not accept that limitation.

For Etkes, who covers hundreds of miles every mouth as he scours every dusty hilltop, every winding road for new outposts, the future of Israel depends on the creation of a Palestinian state.

"I think if Israel wants to take care of Israelis," he said, "it must take care of Palestinians as well."

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