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Settlers Are Challenging Evacuations Of Outposts

JERUSALEM — While American and Egyptian mediators were huddling this week with Israelis and Palestinians over the anti-terrorism provisions of President Bush’s ”road map” to peace, another key point in the plan — dismantling Israeli settlement outposts in the territories — has stalled.

Sharon committed himself at the June 4 Aqaba summit to “begin immediately” the evacuation of some of the “unauthorized” outposts that have been set up on the fringes of established Jewish settlements in the West Bank during the last two years. Dismantling the makeshift encampments is one of Israel’s obligations under the road map, but before Aqaba, Israel had sought to make the action conditional on the Palestinian Authority cracking down on terrorism.

Five days after the summit, the army moved to evacuate 10 outposts, most of them uninhabited. After that, however, the process stalled as settlers appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court. The settlers claim some of the outposts targeted for evacuation have won government authorization. They also challenge the government’s right to dismantle the encampments without an appeals process.

The Supreme Court granted initial stays to evacuation orders, but this week it issued its first ruling, dismissing the settlers’ complaint and authorizing evacuation of the Mitzpeh Yitzhar outpost.

Leaders of the Settlers Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, known by the Hebrew acronym Yesha, met with Sharon this week to present their opposition to the evacuation plans. They described the meeting afterward as “difficult, charged and worrying.”

In a joint statement afterward, the settlers’ council and an affiliated rabbinic group, the Council of Yesha Rabbis, called the plans to dismantle outposts a “Jewish, national and moral crime.”

Settler leaders view the dismantling of the outposts as the first step in a process leading to evacuating established settlements and eventually to Israeli withdrawal from parts of the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian state.

The rabbis’ council called on settlers last week to gather en masse at outposts targeted for evacuation to disrupt the army’s actions. However, the rabbis rejected a call by one of their number, Rabbi Zalman Melamed of Beit El, who urged civil disobedience by settlers and soldiers to block the evacuations. The rabbis called on opponents to act within the law.

Despite the rabbis’ call, military officials say they are concerned about possible confrontations with settlers during evacuations. They are also concerned about a recent upsurge in violence against Palestinians by some of the outpost residents. Rabbis acknowledge they have little control over the settlers’ radical fringe.

Last weekend, dozens of the “hilltop youth,” as the radical settler fringe is known, gathered at the Mitzpeh Yitzhar outpost to fight off an expected evacuation effort. The evacuation was postponed because of a terrorist attack. When the army failed to appear, the settlers rampaged through the nearby Palestinian village of Inbus, burning property and stealing cows. The army later returned the stolen cattle.

Peace Now, the left-wing organization that monitors settlement activity, estimates that 117 outposts have been established without government authorization since 1996 outside the boundaries of established settlements in the West Bank. Of those, 62 have been established since Sharon took office in March 2001. According to the Aqaba agreement, all outposts established after that date are to be dismantled.

Israel’s Defense Ministry says there are about 100 outposts, a figure also used by American officials.

Most of the outposts consist of no more than a few trailers on a hilltop. Some are unpopulated, and most have fewer than a dozen settlers. Altogether about 700 Israelis live in the outposts, according to estimates.

The overall settler population includes roughly 226,000 Israelis living in some 150 established locations in the territories.

Most of the international community views all settlements built in the territories as illegal, violating the Fourth Geneva Convention on rules of war. The Israeli government does not consider them illegal, since it does not view the convention as applicable to the West Bank and Gaza.

The disputed outposts have grown up in spurts since 1996, mostly as protests by settlers against new peace agreements. Some have been set up as memorials on spots where settlers were killed in terrorist incidents.

Their status under Israeli law is unclear. While none began with government sanction, some have received authorization after the fact. In addition, some are considered by settlers to be part of existing settlements, because they are located within theoretical municipal boundaries created for the settlements under a regional master plan drafted during the 1990s.

In response to the Aqaba summit, the army prepared a list of 15 settlement outposts to be evacuated, including five populated ones.

Of the outposts on the army’s original list, all the unpopulated ones have already been dismantled, and military officials say the populated ones are to be evacuated in the coming days. The army is now said to have prepared a list of 19 additional outposts slated for a second round of evacuations.

Ha’aretz contributed to this report.

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