Fri, May 09, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Removing settlers proving a big problem for Sharon


This hilltop seized by Israeli settlers two years ago stood deserted for a few days after army bulldozers ripped up two trailer homes. But the squatters quickly returned -- as they have to other West Bank outposts the army sought to dismantle.

On a recent afternoon at Havat Gilad, or Gilad's farm, men moved among sheds and tractors on the 51-hectare plot. Horses grazed and a few dogs suffered in the desert heat.

Removing more than 60 such outposts is one of Israel's first tasks in the new US-backed Mideast peace plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood.

And its poor record so far underscores the mammoth difficulties ahead in dismantling the much larger settlements built over the past 35 years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- some now full-fledged towns, with colleges, factories and high-rise apartment buildings.

Palestinian officials and Israeli peace activists say Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not serious about removing the outposts. On the contrary, they say, the government is quietly backing them as a way of getting around Israel's promise to the US not to sanction new settlements.

In many cases the government appears to be helping, not confronting the squatters. Soldiers are assigned to guard them and settlers say they have government help in paving roads to some outposts.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Israel's attempts to take down a few outposts were just for show.

"Removing a trailer here or there is intended for the media," he said.

Sharon has been a driving force in settlement expansion over the years. In 1998, as foreign minister, he urged settlers to seize hilltops, even after he participated in US-led talks with the Palestinians on a land handover.

Were he to move against the settlers now, Sharon might have to search for new political allies to save his coalition. Two nationalist parties are already threatening to walk out, though the moderate Labor Party, now in the opposition, could take their place.

In recent years, settlers have established 115 outposts, most home to just one or two families living in trailers or cargo containers.

Since Sharon became prime minister in March 2001, the army has dismantled 11 outposts, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group monitoring settlement expansion. Of the remainder, 61 were set up during Sharon's tenure and would have to be dismantled quickly under the road map.

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