A reported Israeli plan to forcibly evacuate 23 unauthorized settler outposts in a single day could finally fulfill a promise that successive Israeli governments have made to Washington, while minimizing the violence and bad public relations that have marred previous evacuations.
Israel's efforts to rein in these mushrooming do-it-yourself settlements, established without government approval, hit a roadblock in 2006 with the evacuation of an outpost known as Amona. Days ahead of time, ultranationalist protesters streamed in from all over the country. More than 300 were injured, including two members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The Knesset concluded later that the police had used excessive brutality. No major dismantling has been attempted since.
This time around, it seems, the government is trying to prevent a repeat of Amona by simultaneously dismantling the outposts and thus minimizing resistance from protesters.
"They want to avoid that kind of evacuation now, and the logistics of it are not easy," says Peter Medding, a politics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "And if you're going to do 23 places, you don't want to do it one by one, and repeat the risk of failure."
On Tuesday, Russia and France echoed US pressure on Israel to honor its obligations vis-à-vis settlements as outlined in the 2003 road map, targeting a planned development in East Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been reluctant to curtail Israeli expansion there, which the Jewish state views as its eternal capital, but illegal outposts look like another matter.
Reports: Drill for large-scale evacuation
"The IDF is subordinate to the political echelon and implements its instructions, but such an order was never received," the IDF said in a statement.
The defense ministry, which ultimately calls the shots, has refused to provide a list of outposts to be evacuated in an apparent effort to avoid giving pro-settler activists information with which to organize themselves. But it's clear that Israeli security forces have been preparing for some kind of an evacuation. Last week, there were joint exercises to prepare for some kind of large-scale evacuation, involving the border police, the regular police, and the IDF. The drill, led by the border police, was held at a military base more than a week ago, several Israeli newspapers reported.
While Israel has long promised to dismantle outposts and failed to deliver, Professor Medding says that Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu appear to be serious about evacuating the outposts for the sake of advancing the peace process, and have the majority of the Israeli public behind them.
"Some of this movement is a matter of maintaining some kind of relationship with the US. You make a promise, you keep it," says Medding. Under the Bush administration, he says, there was "an understanding that Israel has a number of dilemmas in doing this, and I think that has changed now," he adds. "There hadn't been a sense of urgency to do something about it until Barack Obama came to office."
Settlers vow 'price tag' for dismantling
On Monday, police evacuated three illegal structures at outposts in the West Bank. Settlers, promising to put a "price tag" on such evacuations, lashed out in response, torching Palestinian olive groves, throwing stones at Palestinian cars, and blocking roads. As a result, two Palestinians, a soldier, and a settler were slightly hurt.
Israel and the US have had outpost evacuation at the top of the Middle East peace agenda since at least 2004, when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President George W. Bush he would evacuate all unauthorized outposts built after 2001. Though small and slapdash in style, sometimes consisting of just a few trailer homes on a hill, the outposts are considered particularly important because they represent an attempt to greatly extend the borders of existing settlements or build new ones altogether.
A 2005 government-commissioned study known as the "Sasson Report" identified 105 settlements that fit the definition of outpost: lying a significant distance from an existing settlement and established with disregard to the law. Author Talia Sasson, a lawyer, reported that the "establishment of unauthorized outposts violates standard procedure [and] good governing rules." She called their existence an "ongoing" and "bold" violation of the law.
Mr. Barak, who has been acting as de facto foreign minister when it comes to the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks, is heading Israel's meetings with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, who is due here next week. Israel's actual foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has recused himself from such talks because, he says, as a West Bank settler himself, he doesn't want to be blamed for blocking the talks' success.