Thursday, October 10, 2002

Israel Begins Effort to Remove Illegal Settler Outposts in the West Bank
The Israeli Army dismantled two uninhabited settlement outposts in the West Bank today in what defense officials said was the start of a campaign to take down more than 20 illegal encampments.

The removal of the West Bank outposts, ordered by Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, drew harsh criticism from leaders of the settlers, who accused the minister of trying to placate dovish members of his Labor Party ahead of a closely contested election for the party leadership next month.

The prospect of the removal of more outposts, including inhabited sites, raised the possibility of a confrontation pitting Mr. Ben-Eliezer against the settlers and their supporters in the governing coalition.

Some commentators speculated that Mr. Ben-Eliezer was seeking such a confrontation in order to appeal to left-leaning Labor members in the race for the leadership of the party, where he is facing a strong challenge from two dovish contenders, Haim Ramon and Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa.

A spokesman for Mr. Ben-Eliezer dismissed that idea, saying that the minister had decided to act after talks with the settlers about removing the unauthorized outposts had proved fruitless.

Scores of outposts, in which people typically live in mobile homes, have been put up by settlers on West Bank hills since 1996 in an effort to expand existing settlements and scuttle plans to hand over more land to the Palestinians. The Peace Now movement, which monitors the outposts, says it has counted more than 100.

Today the army removed empty mobile homes and shipping containers that had been placed by the settlers in two locations west and south of Nablus, a Defense Ministry official said. He added that 20 to 30 outposts would soon be removed.

Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri said the outposts were illegal and had become a burden on the army, which had to to post soldiers to guard them.

"There cannot be a situation in which people who say they are an indivisible part of the territory of the state will be above the law of the State of Israel," Mr. Shiri said.

Leaders of the council of settlements expressed dismay, saying that despite continuing negotiations, they were informed at an overnight meeting with the chief of the army's Central Command that orders had gone out to remove the outposts.