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Jewish settlers vow defend outposts

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Jun. 10, 2003. 06:16 AM
Jewish settlers vow to defend outposts
Protesters block army vehicles
'Our battle is with the politicians'


AMONA, West Bank—Israel's drive to dismantle illegal outposts stalled last night in the face of unified resistance from this staunch community of Jewish settlers.

As Israeli troops arrived on the scene 20 kilometres northeast of Ramallah, with wrecking equipment in tow, residents of the nearby Israeli settlement of Ofra raced on foot and by car to a hardscrabble hilltop to blockade the fledgling satellite community of Amona.

Within minutes, the Israel Defence Forces unit succeeded in pulling down a guard tower overlooking the outpost.

But they got no further, finding themselves surrounded by hundreds of settlers — mostly young children and teenagers — who formed a human chain preventing the army vehicles from moving.

Singing songs, huddled in group prayer, the peaceful standoff continued deep into the night, when it appeared that Amona — one of an estimated 60 outposts planted since the start of the Palestinian uprising 32 months ago — would live to see another day.

Amona and the mother community of Ofra find themselves on the wrong side of Ramallah, in the very heart of land designated for a future Palestinian state under U.S. President George W. Bush's "road map" peace plan.

But such a future spells doom for the Orthodox Jewish residents of the area, according to protester Rivkah Ben-Meir.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ben-Meir gave her heart to Ofra when she and her husband, a New Yorker, settled 18 years ago. Their firstborn was then just 3 months old.

"Next month my son goes into the army," Ben-Meir said last night, standing her ground against the soldiers with the rest of the community at her side.

"But our battle is not with the army, it's with the politicians who are making this terrible mistake.

"We have to stop it because we think it is just the beginning: Today, an outpost. Tomorrow, it will be an actual settlement. We won't let it happen."

An army statement said unauthorized structures were removed from five outposts yesterday, Associated Press reports. Israel Radio said early today that four others were dismantled, one by settlers. All were uninhabited.

Settlers said they would put up stiffer resistance at several populated outposts slated for removal.

"We have thousands, even tens of thousands, who are ready to fight," said settler leader Adi Mintz, adding that the struggle would be nonviolent.

Palestinian officials have dismissed Israel's pledge to dismantle illegal outposts as merely symbolic, arguing that many such sites consist of nothing more than a few uninhabited trailers. The real obstacles to peace, they say, are the settlements themselves — an elaborate network of Jewish communities throughout the occupied Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in which an estimated 200,000 Israelis live.

The first outpost to go yesterday as part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitments at last week's peace summit at Aqaba underscored the Palestinian argument. The South Neveh Erez outpost, a hilltop enclave of exactly two portable trailers 12 kilometres northeast of Ramallah, was razed in a matter of seconds by Israeli bulldozers. Nobody lived there.

At a news conference last night, the Yesha Council, the political organization representing Israeli settlers, blamed "strong U.S. pressure" and vowed to scuttle the road map plan with every means short of armed resistance.

"We will do everything we can to torpedo, obstruct and prolong this step," said Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.

Shaul Goldstein, head of Gush Etzion Regional Council, cautioned settlers to use nothing more than passive resistance.

"We're fighting for our homes, but we must keep this a clean confrontation," he said.

"The army is our brothers, our sons, our fathers. We must not raise a hand against them, even if they raise a hand against us."

In a meeting with reporters, Sharon was asked whether the dismantling of outposts amounted to a "prize for terror."

"If the terror continues there will be no political progress," he answered. "But this is not connected to the issue of outposts, which were established without authorization by the government or any other body."

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was busy putting his own fires out yesterday, appealing to Palestinian militant groups to abide by his ceasefire declaration and announcing that President Yasser Arafat is fully committed to the promises of Aqaba.

In a news conference clearly intended for an Arab audience, Abbas turned aside criticism he was too conciliatory in his statement at Aqaba, which acknowledged the historic suffering of the Jewish people without mentioning Palestinian suffering under Israeli occupation.

Abbas said he would continue to press militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to accept a ceasefire but added, "we cannot force the resumption of talks."

Instead, he urged the United States to follow through on its promise to ensure an easing of conditions in the West Bank and Gaza to give the road map room to unfold.

"We demand President (George W.) Bush complete what he started in Sharm el-Sheikh and Aqaba, alleviate the suffering of our people, starting with the prisoners, stops closures, end house demolitions, remove the shameful wall and dismantle settlement outposts," Abbas said.

In violence yesterday, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians in an exchange of fire near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza after nightfall, the military said. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said the two men were members of its military wing, Reuters reports.

In Washington, Bush told reporters he remained upbeat the road map was on track despite the efforts of those who want to "blow up peace" in the Middle East.

"Listen, I recognize there's going to be extremists, particularly in the Palestinian territories, that want to blow up peace. But I think people are sick of it," he said.

Additional articles by Mitch Potter

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