Israeli settlers warn they will not leave alive

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

GINNOT ARIEH, West Bank -- Insisting they are bound to the land, Jewish settlers living in this tiny cluster of trailers said Monday the government would have to forcibly remove them from their homes if it carries out a decision to tear down their outpost.

Pulling down the unauthorized settlements that dot hilltops throughout the West Bank is a key element of the U.S-backed "road map" peace plan, which Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted -- with reservations -- in June.

Soon after, soldiers dismantled a few of the more than 100 outposts, but momentum fizzled as the peace process bogged down and Palestinians ignored the road map requirement that they disarm militant groups.

Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz agreed Sunday to order four of the outposts -- three of them uninhabited -- dismantled in the coming days. One of the three, Havat Shaked, has been evacuated several times before but rebuilt each time.

The fourth is Ginnot Arieh, about four miles northeast of the Palestinian city of Ramallah and home to some 25 settlers.

Dismantling uninhabited outposts is convenient for the government, because it minimizes the threat of confrontation with settlers. Still, some settlers defend even uninhabited areas, because they see them as the kernel of future settlements.

The Defense Ministry would not say when exactly the outposts would be taken down, but the military said the commander overseeing the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, signed an order Monday for their removal.

One resident of Ginnot Arieh said he would never abandon the stony hills where he lives.

"God says 'live here' -- and that's it," said Pinchas Yamin, 27, a religious Jew and disc jockey at a settler radio station. "I won't leave alive. If a soldier wants, he can take me, but not alive. This is my home."

Oren Rund, secretary of the outpost, said thousands of settlers would flock here if soldiers try to force them off the land.

Past efforts to remove outposts have led to hours-long standoffs between soldiers and radical settlers that sometimes ended in scuffles and protesters being dragged off.

Such scenes, played out before TV cameras, are calculated to underscore the difficulty any government would have in removing settlers.

Many outpost residents are observant Jews who believe the West Bank is part of the biblical land of Israel and must remain under Israeli control. Some of them establish outposts as gestures of defiance after Palestinian attacks.

Ginnot Arieh was such a case: It was set up after a settler, Arieh Hershkowitz, was shot to death in an attack nearby three years ago.

Deputy Education Minister Zvi Hendel, who visited the 10 mobile homes here Monday, said his hard-line National Union Party would withdraw from Sharon's coalition and launch an unspecified "struggle" if their checks revealed the outpost was legal.

Hendel's party and the hawkish National Religious Party, which has also threatened to quit the coalition, could bring down Sharon's government. However, the dovish Labor Party has suggested it would prop up Sharon if he genuinely follows through on promises to dismantle outposts and settlements.

The government says it has taken down or prevented the establishment of 43 outposts since June. Peace Now, an Israeli group opposed to the settlements, says Israel has only taken down eight of the old outposts, but settlers have established five new ones that remain standing.

The group says over 100 outposts remain, some established before March 2001.

The settlers at outposts slated for evacuation have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court, which could mean evacuation would come only late next week at the earliest, the Haaretz daily said.

But Ginnot Arieh settlers said it doesn't matter if courts decide the outpost is "unauthorized." For them, only God's law matters.

"The whole world must understand that this is our land, the Jewish people's," said Yamin, who slid his M-16 assault rifle under the table and out of view when he invited journalists inside for coffee. "We live here and we die here -- and that's that."

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