Israeli outposts to be removed under peace plan

JERUSALEM -- Israel has slated 28 unauthorized West Bank outposts to be torn down under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, security sources said Tuesday. But critics argue the plan requires Israel to dismantle more than twice that number.

The list was disclosed a day after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a convention of his hawkish party that even some of the larger veteran settlements would have to be removed -- either under the road map or under his own proposed unilateral plan to disengage from the Palestinians.

The shift in the thinking of Sharon, the settlers' patron for decades, underscored the mounting pressure on Israel for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following more than three years of Mideast violence.

The road map requires Israel to remove all outposts erected since March 2001. The Peace Now watchdog group says there are at least 60 of them. Several dozen others established before March 2001 are not addressed by the road map. The 28 outposts identified by the Israeli Defense Ministry include 18 inhabited communities housing about 400 settlers, security sources said Tuesday. The largest is Migron, home to 43 families, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

Raanan Gissin, a Sharon spokesman, said the premier has given approval "in general" for dismantling outposts, often just a trailer or water tower on a hilltop.

"I don't know about these 28. He has agreed to speed up and expedite the dismantling of outposts," Gissin said.

The security sources said Israeli military officials had preferred to keep the list secret, fearing settlers would flock to them. But the list was made public after a request by a lawmaker from the dovish Meretz Party.

It wasn't clear when, or if, the 28 outposts would be removed. A formal order must be issued, and settlers have 15 days to appeal after that.

"We will struggle against this and intend to appeal to the Supreme Court to stop this process," said Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settler spokesman.

While the government has dismantled some outposts in the past few months, others have gone up in their place.

Palestinians charge that the outposts -- and the foot-dragging in removing them -- are part of a larger effort to make it impossible for them to set up a state in the West Bank and Gaza. They view all Jewish settlement in the areas as illegal.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was dismissive of the list, saying Tuesday that "they don't want peace, but the continuation of the military operation," and "what they are doing, removing outposts here and there ... is only deception."

Although few believe Sharon will ever meet the Palestinian demand for a total pullout from the West Bank and Gaza, many in Israel say his recent statements are a significant departure from past policy.

On Monday, activists in his hardline Likud Party booed and catcalled when Sharon said "it is clear that in a permanent peace accord, we will have to give up some of the Jewish settlements."

Sharon repeated his plan, first outlined last month, to redraw the West Bank map on his own unless the Palestinians begin dismantling militant groups, as required by the road map, in a few months. While the Palestinians would get less land than they would in a negotiation, even such a unilateral pullout would require the evacuation of some of the more isolated Jewish settlements, he said.

Speaking on Tuesday in Jerusalem, Efraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad secret service, said the willingness to remove settlements was connected to the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein, which removed the threat of attack from the east -- one of the key reasons some in Israel wanted to hold on to the West Bank.

"One has to reconsider the settlements in terms of their strategic (importance) as they are today, not as they were yesterday or the day before. Strategic considerations ... change over the years," Halevy said.

Also Tuesday, Palestinians said Israeli forces had withdrawn from the West Bank city of Nablus after a three-week operation. The army said, however, that the operation continues. Last week Israeli forces withdrew one day, only to re-enter the next morning. During the three-week sweep, 12 Palestinians were killed.