Next up for Israeli bulldozers: outposts?

The fast withdrawal from Gaza may add new pressure for the removal of 101 illegal settlements.

Hours after Itzik Davidson was forced out of the West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur on Monday with scores of other protesters resisting Israel's disengagement plan, he returned home convinced he'd soon be fighting for his own home.

Mr. Davidson is one of as many as 2,000 Israelis who live in 101 illegal outposts, which are "start-up" settlements that aren't recognized by the Israeli government.

After Israeli security forces succeeded in evicting 15,000 residents and protesters at a faster-than-expected pace from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza and the northern West Bank, many agree with Davidson that the next in line for evacuation could be the dozens of hilltop outposts like Bruchin that dot the West Bank.

"Gush Katif and northern Samaria were only the first phase," says Davidson, whose living room looks out onto an unmanned military watchtower. "The outposts are next."

Although Israel has never recognized these small communities because it would break a decade-old ban on new settlements, government bureaucrats have fueled the expansion anyway, granting permits for construction, electricity, and phone lines.

Bruchin can't be found on a conventional road atlas, but the collection of mobile homes has spawned a subdivision of hilltop villas. In less than a year it has grown from 45 to 70 families.

The US sees the outposts as a threat to the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state, and made dismantling them a key stipulation in the "road map" peace plan. If the Gaza withdrawal provides new momentum to move forward on the road map, the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might come under new pressure to start dismantling the outposts.

"The American administration has made it very clear that this is the next stage," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "I imagine that this is the next thing that's going to be on the agenda."

For the past year and a half, the Bush administration has avoided pressuring Mr. Sharon over the outposts so he could push through the controversial Gaza withdrawal. "We've just been focusing on a successful Gaza disengagement," says a US diplomat.

Mr. Sharon's government says it has already evacuated dozens of hilltops, but the overwhelming majority have been uninhabited outposts. On the rare occasions that soldiers have attempted to remove outpost settlers, it sparked battles with ideologically driven youths considered to be volatile extremists.

Peace Now spokesman Yair Oppenheimer says the success in evacuating settlements in Gaza exposes the government's delay on evacuating the outposts as disingenuous.

"The disengagement shows that if the Israeli government wants to evacuate settlement outposts, it can do it very smoothly, easily, and quickly," says Mr. Oppenheimer. "We expect the government to fulfill its promise to evacuate the outposts."

The road map requires Israel to dismantle outposts formed after Sharon's election in February 2001, or about 50, according to Peace Now. In March, a panel of inquiry appointed by Sharon suggested that none of the outposts was legal. Most are uninhabited hilltops with no more than a mobile home. With its uniform houses, brick sidewalks, and street lamps, six-year old Bruchin is among the most developed.

Mark Regev, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the government remains committed to evacuating outposts in line with the requirements of the road map. "Ultimately you're talking about pirates, the same sort of people who were active against disengagement."

And yet, analysts say the outposts won't be coming down at least until next year. Rather than risk political capital on a move that would be perceived by the Israeli right as another concession to the Palestinians, Sharon is likely to wait for implementation of the road map. But Palestinian elections in January, and an Israeli parliamentary vote expected later in 2006 is likely to delay progress on the peace plan.

"There will be new evacuations only if the road map is carried out," says Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Israel's Bar Ilan University. "With all the good intentions of the Americans and the road map, I can't see that happening at least for another year and a half to two years."

Now that his sojourn as one of the many who protested against the West Bank evacuation has ended, he talks of purchasing software companies and real estate deals - among them building projects at two hilltop outposts nearby.

But the value of the outpost construction goes beyond profit and loss, he explains. "Think of what would have happened if instead of 2,000 houses in Gush Katif there were 10,000," says Davidson. "Do you think they would have been able to evacuate Gush Katif?"

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