- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

TEL AVIV — Militant Jewish settlers clashed with Israeli army troops and police yesterday as they began dismantling the first occupied settlement — a key step in the U.S.-backed “road map” for peace.

About 30 people were injured and 15 were arrested in a brawl between several hundred settlers and about 1,000 soldiers and police at the Mitzpeh Yitzhar settlement, consisting of several tents and two buildings, in the West Bank.

The evacuation went ahead hours after a Palestinian suicide attack at a grocery store near the northern Israeli city of Beit She’an, killing the bomber and the shop owner.

The clash over the settlement, shortly before Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in the region to bolster peace efforts, signaled an initial test of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s willingness to stick to the peace map. For years, militant settler groups have been among Mr. Sharon’s strongest supporters.

Under the plan, dozens of hilltop outposts established by settlers in the past two years must be dismantled by the Israeli government.

The removal of the outpost, a tent city on a mountaintop outside the West Bank city of Nablus and home to about 10 settlers, came yesterday after the army had dismantled structures at 10 unpopulated settlements earlier this month.

Israel has committed to razing outposts it deems illegal.

“We are taking action according to the law. It’s a complex operation and there is resistance,” said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr. Sharon. “We are doing what we pledged to do. It’s very painful and excruciating.”

Meanwhile, talks on halting Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians continued yesterday in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, between Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian militant groups.

Palestinian officials said yesterday that they hoped an agreement could be reached to coincide with Mr. Powell’s two-day visit to Israel and Palestinian cities, which gets under way today.

Islamic Jihad, one of several militant Palestinian groups, took responsibility for the suicide bombing. It identified the attacker as 22-year-old Ahmed Abahreh.

The bomber probably had intended to target a bus or a bus stop in Sdeh Trumot and had entered the supermarket to wait, police spokesman Yaron Zamir said.

The store owner, Avner Mordechai, 63, was suspicious and approached the man, who then detonated the explosives, Mr. Zamir said.

Mr. Powell will try to reinvigorate the U.S.-led peace initiative after a wave of violence last week sapped the momentum generated by the meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, earlier this month of President Bush, Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas.

More than 50 people have been killed since the summit.

The road map, which aims to create a Palestinian state within two years, calls for both sides to initially carry out a series of confidence-building measures that would encourage an end to the bloodshed, which has lasted 32 months.

Palestinian officials said removal of the outposts signaled a step in the right direction, but that Israel needs to do a lot more to convince Palestinians that it is interested in advancing the peace process.

“These are all important symbols of ending the settlement activity. But it looks more like a gesture or a symbol rather than something concrete,” said Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian Cabinet minister. “The outposts are very rarely seen by anybody. Believe me, it will produce more concrete results if the Israelis would declare an end to the assassination and incursions,” a reference to Israel’s targeted killings of Palestinian leaders.

Yesterday, the Israeli army brought in armored vehicles and a bulldozer during the evacuation of the outpost.

Mitzpeh Yitzhar is an outgrowth of Yitzhar, one of dozens of older West Bank settlements that are home to more than 200,000 Israelis.

Army reinforcements were called in to block the way of hundreds of residents from nearby settlements who streamed to the outpost to protest and to try to stop the evacuation.

Most of the demonstrators engaged in passive resistance. Many danced in circles. Others bowed their heads in prayer during the standoff.

However, dozens of settlers attempted to break through a line of police, sparking a shoving match that led to dozens of light injuries among the demonstrators and the security forces.

“This is a just fight,” said Uri Ariel, a member of the hard-line National Union Party, who predicted that the outpost would be reconstructed within hours. “We are willing to engage in resistance until it becomes clear that it is forbidden to remove settlements.”

Police seized gasoline bombs, and some settlers set fire to the fringes of Palestinian-owned farmland in efforts to disrupt the operation, military officials told Reuters news agency.

The evacuation effort started in the morning, but it was held up temporarily until Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a settler petition against the dismantling of one of the structures on the hill. The buildings finally were razed in the evening.

The outposts were established by religious Jews, who claim the West Bank and seek to block Palestinian efforts to create a state with territorial continuity among the main Arab cities.

“The Arabs should get out of here. They should go to Jordan, or to Lebanon. This is our land,” said one female resident of Mitzpeh Yitzhar.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when he was a Cabinet minister, Mr. Sharon became a hero to the settlers, as he funneled money to help them build and expand settlements.

But with the prime minister beginning the removal of the outposts, the settlers have pledged to engage in a campaign against him.

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