Protesters fail to stop dismantling of West Bank outpost

JERUSALEM — Just hours after protesters attempted to make a stand, the dismantling of West Bank outposts began Tuesday night when settlers took down a water tower from a hilltop near the settlement of Shvut Rachel.

But in defiance of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's threats to evacuate these unauthorized settlements, other West Bank settlers put up a makeshift synagogue Wednesday at another outpost, Maon Farm. The settlement, one of 42 outposts set up without government approval, is also slated for removal.

The Israeli prime minister's compromise with Jewish settler leaders last week to voluntarily dismantle illegal West Bank outposts didn't proceed until Barak and security officials issued veiled threats that the Israeli Defense Force or police might have to implement the agreement.

Initially, young settler activists near Shvut Rachel, in the Ramallah area, foiled efforts by the Yesha Council, which represents Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to take down the structure.

The demonstrators congregated at the site and blocked the path of the truck carrying the equipment.

Yesha leaders told Israel Radio that they blamed the media for telling the activists which outpost the council would dismantle first. The leaders said the council intends to uphold its agreement.

At the outpost Tuesday, demonstrators piled stones, rusty barrels and old tires, preventing access to the hilltop. The demonstrators danced and waved placards reading, "Today This Enclave, Tomorrow Jerusalem" and "Let the Sun Shine on All the Enclaves."

However, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza announced later that settlers had begun taking apart the tower.

The council's statement said only that a water tower had been dismantled and the hilltop had been cleared "in accordance with its obligations." It did not specify when other encampments would be removed.

The dismantling followed last week's compromise between Barak and the council, which agreed to the removal of 12 of the 42 outposts set up, without government approval, since last year's Wye agreement. The council had promised there would be no resistance.

Settler sources said they wanted the dismantling to take place only under cover of darkness, without the media present. Pinhas Wallerstein, former council chairman and head of the Binyamin Regional Council, said the settlers would uphold their obligations to Barak.

The protest reflected strains within the settlement movement itself on how to deal with the policies of Barak. Some members of the settlement community, particularly younger activists, have accused the Yesha Council of succumbing to pressure from Barak.

Truck driver Motti Katz said he placed the water tower there four years ago and told reporters he did not want to get involved in an argument with the activists, some of whom he knows. The youths began planting olive trees at the site.

Daniella Weiss of Kedumim arrived at the site to support the protesters.

"God gave us the chance to be here. We're Jews. We have the land and we are not leaving it," she said to cheers from the small crowd.

"We are against the peace movement's ideology of being tired, of just wanting quiet," said Shivi Drori, from Givat Harel, one of the outposts. He said he and his friends would resist government attempts to dismantle outposts, but would not use violence.

Amid the confrontation, the prime minister's office issued a statement saying that it expected the council to make good on its promise to help with the removals. IDF officers said that the civil administration and security forces might have to be called in unless the dismantling was permitted to get under way.

The outposts were constructed on hilltops in the West Bank as settlers sought to create "facts on the ground" before final-status negotiations, which will determine the future of the settlements and Israel's final borders.

Barak has insisted he is acting out of legal, and not political, considerations in determining which outposts can remain. His effort at compromising with the settler leaders was seen as an attempt to avoid some of the unsettling scenes witnessed during the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when Israeli troops forcibly removed Jewish settlers who had sought to stake claim on West Bank hilltops.

By the end of this week, settlers were expected to dismantle encampments at Shvut Rachel, Hirbat a-Shoona near Eli, and one site and two plots near Kiryat Arba. The evacuation of all encampments, government officials said, is expected to be completed by next Friday.

However on Wednesday, some 1,000 people held a ceremony at the makeshift synagogue at Maon Farm, a symbol of their belief that all of the territories are part of the biblically ordained land of Israel.

In related news, 18-year Knesset member Hanan Porat, one of the founding fathers of the Gush Emunim settlers' movement, announced his resignation from Israel's legislative body on Wednesday. He said he will continue his work with the settlers, in hopes that the young settlers' movement will lead the fight for the retention of the territories.

"My resignation is not an expression of disappointment," he wrote in his letter of resignation. "On the contrary, I believe with all my heart in the process of returning to Zion in its entirety and intend continuing public national service in education, social issues, and in the settlements."