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Crisis Looms Over Settlement Evacuations

JERUSALEM — The debate over the future Israel’s settlement policy continued to rage furiously this week, following Prime Minister Sharon’s December 18 speech outlining possible unilateral steps to separate from the Palestinians and redeploy some settlements.

While the Labor Party and the left continued to dismiss Sharon’s plan as either insincere or a veiled form of annexation, critics on the right threatened to block any move to dismantle or relocate settlements. A rabbinic organization linked to the settler movement issued a religious ban on evacuating settlements, and settler leaders vowed to bring thousands of activists to block any planned evacuation physically.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said during a press conference on Sunday that if Israel implements plans to separate itself from the Palestinians, tens of thousands of settlers might have to move, resulting in a serious confrontation with settlers and their supporters.

“I have no doubt there would be a very painful, difficult heartbreaking process and a confrontation of unknown proportion in the life of this country,” Olmert said following the weekly Cabinet meeting. “It’s a serious crisis. There’s no doubt about it. I expect it to be very emotional and very confrontational.”

The settlements are home to some 220,000 Israelis. The number that would be required to move as part of a unilateral withdrawal “is certainly a lot more than in the thousands,” Olmert said. “It’s probably in the tens of thousands.”

But Sharon faced fierce opposition at an emergency meeting of his own Likud Knesset faction this week, with lawmakers vowing to fight him in other party forums. Only three lawmakers in the 39-member caucus openly backed the prime minister.

“When the hour of truth comes, don’t expect our support if you go for a unilateral move involving the evacuation of Israeli settlements,” said freshman lawmaker Gila Gamliel.

Sharon’s proposal includes a plan to relocate isolated settlements and dismantle uninhabited outposts, as well as to speed up construction of the West Bank security fence, making it part of a makeshift border with the Palestinians.

The plan is designed to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians by pulling back from parts of the West Bank and Gaza. It would encourage closer economic ties between the territories and neighboring Arab states to allow the Palestinians to develop their economy.

The army’s planning division has reportedly begun drawing up operational plans for an evacuation of illegal settlement outposts, part of the U.S.-backed road map to peace that Sharon has promised to implement in the coming weeks as the first step in his plan.

The largest of the outposts, Migron, a collection of trailers northeast of Jerusalem housing some 42 families, is slated to be part of the first wave of evacuations. Leaders of the Yesha settlements council met with senior government officials this week to argue that Migron should be left in place because much of the land was purchased legally from Palestinian owners.

If the army moves to evacuate the outpost, however, Yesha leaders say they will mobilize as many as 5,000 activists to block the troops nonviolently.

A senior American official told Israeli reporters this week that the United States expects Israel to evacuate Migron regardless of political difficulties.

“Migron is an outpost, and it always appeared on both our lists and yours as an outpost that was included in the prime minister’s commitment to evacuate the outposts,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Asked how the United States would respond if Migron were retroactively legalized, the official responded: “If an outpost … suddenly receives a permit, that will raise many questions.”

Noting that Sharon had promised President Bush that the outposts would be evacuated, the official continued: “The president expects that commitment to be honored, just as the prime minister expects the president to honor his commitments to him … There is no one in the Prime Minister’s Office who does not understand the president’s determination over this matter.”

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