- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

JERUSALEM — Jewish settlers, emboldened by the political weakness of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said they will try today to reclaim a West Bank settlement that Israel abandoned a year and a half ago.

The “Homesh First” march, named after the former settlement, could spark clashes between settler activists and Israeli soldiers while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region trying to resuscitate the peace process with the Palestinians.

It would be the first time anyone has tried to permanently reoccupy any of the 23 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that were evacuated in August 2005 by Mr. Olmert’s predecessor, Ariel Sharon.

Homesh First leaders have said they hope to mobilize thousands of followers to trek through the West Bank hills around Israeli army roadblocks. Marchers have been told to pack enough camping gear for a two-day stay amid the rubble of Homesh.

The demonstrators have been told that security officers who use force to oppose the march should be considered criminals, and have been encouraged to use self-defense.

The drive on Homesh, a strategic mountaintop in the northern West Bank, is one of a series of provocative moves by a group of hard-core settler leaders. Last week, they moved into a Palestinian-built house in Hebron, and some are planning to establish new settlements in the West Bank next month.

The Gaza disengagement was seen as an ideological calamity for the settlement movement because of the ease with which the government extracted about 9,000 settlers from their homes.

March leaders blame the disengagement for Israel’s disappointing performance in the Lebanon war last summer and for a string of political corruption scandals that have contributed to deep disillusionment with Israel’s political leaders, especially Mr. Olmert.

“The disengagement has turned the country into a security mop,” said Boaz Ha’etzni, one of the march leaders. “The purpose [of the operation] is very simple: It means the disengagement hasn’t ended.”

Mr. Ha’etzni was quoted in a settler newspaper a week ago threatening security forces with violence if they used force against the demonstrators.

The army, which reportedly is bringing in four brigades to stop the marchers, issued a statement saying it will use any necessary means to block the advance on Homesh.

Activists are being encouraged to dodge soldiers and policemen, but they also are being told to disregard any security forces that try to stop the march.

“Don’t listen to an order that’s against our whole Torah and our beliefs,” Rabbi Shimon Ben Tsiyon, a march leader, told a group of prospective activists. “It’s an illegal order even if it’s signed by a general.”

Leaders of the Homesh First march said they have spent the past two months at settlements around the West Bank in an attempt to drum up support for the move.

They are hoping that Mr. Olmert, whose political survival hinges on a forthcoming review of his government’s handling of the Lebanon war, won’t have the stomach for a confrontation.

When he was acting prime minister heading into an election, Mr. Olmert ordered the demolition of several buildings at the illegal settlement outpost of Amona, prompting clashes in which dozens of police, soldiers and settler activists were injured.

But now, “the government is weak and it won’t want clashes,” said Rabbi Motti Ganeram, a Homesh evacuee who is hoping to reclaim his former home.

The Homesh activists are hoping to enlist veterans of the Gaza Strip and Amona demonstrations, mostly young idealistic religious seminary students. With schools on break for the Passover holiday, more teenage activists are likely to be free for the demonstration.

One prospective demonstrator, who asked that his name not be published, said he prefers not to confront security forces, but if clashes break out, “we’re not afraid of getting hit.”

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