The Israeli army overnight dismantled more than 10 settler outposts in the West Bank, in the first step that Israel has taken to implement the "road-map" peace plan backed by the United States.
Last week, under the gaze of President George Bush at the summit in Aqaba, Ariel Sharon the Israeli Prime Minister, promised to evacuate the outposts. In response, angry Jewish settlers pledged to take over 10 new hilltops in the West Bank for every outpost that is dismantled.
But the removal of the outposts shows how little Mr Sharon has pledged to do so far. One, Neve Erez South consisted of just two empty caravans on a hillside near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, according to the Israeli pressure group Peace Now.
Another, Armona, near the settlement of Ofra, was a water tower, which the Israeli army took down yesterday. All outposts were uninhabited.
What Mr Sharon pledged to remove were not established settlements - full-scale towns that carve up the West Bank and Gaza Strip where Palestinians want to establish their state, which is called for under the "road-map". He promised only to remove "unauthorised outposts" such as Neve Erez South and Armona.
For any peace deal to work, Israel would almost certainly have to remove at least some of the established settlements as well. All the settlements are illegal under international law because they are built on occupied land. But the outposts are illegal under Israeli law as well because they were put up without government permission. They are set up by militant Jewish settlers to establish "facts on the ground" - a Jewish presence that will make it hard for any Palestinian state to be set up in the West Bank.
Mr Sharon himself urged settlers to "seize the hilltops" and scupper the Oslo peace process before he was elected Prime Minister. But now, under pressure from Mr Bush, who said last week that the settlements must be "dealt with", the Israeli Prime Minister is moving against the settlers. Under the road-map, Israel is supposed to dismantle all the outposts put up since Mr Sharon became Prime Minister in March 2001.
According to Israeli media reports, a list of just 15 settler outposts has been drawn up to be dismantled in the first phase - far fewer than the 62 that have been set up in the past two years, according to Peace Now. The group says there are 102 outposts that are illegal under Israeli law, with about 1,000 inhabitants. However, only four of those scheduled to be dismantled are inhabited.
But settlers, who marched in their thousands in Jerusalem last week to protest against Mr Sharon's speech at Aqaba, have reacted furiously. When the Israeli army tried to dismantle an outpost last October, under pressure from the opposition Labour Party, which was then in a coalition with Mr Sharon, there were violent confrontations. Settlers attacked Israeli soldiers who were trying to remove the outpost.
There were no such scenes yesterday. Most settler leaders urged their followers not to use violence against soldiers. But the spokesman for the settlers' Yesha Council, Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, said: "If we are evacuated, we'll return the night after and establish 10 new outposts."
Adi Mintz, the head of the Yesha Council, said: "We see this as the beginning of an attempt to destroy the settlement project." One leader, Pinchas Wallerstein, urged settlers to fight the soldiers. "I will recommend that my friends do not, in any shape or form, co-operate," he said, adding that he recommended "fighting it with full force".
By angering the settlers, Mr Sharon is upsetting one of his key constituencies. But many more Israelis are prepared to give up outposts as well as established settlements for peace, according to a poll published yesterday.
The poll, conducted by Tel Aviv University, found that 59 per cent of Israelis were prepared to give up all but the main settlement blocs, and 56 per cent would support a unilateral withdrawal from the occupied territories in order to cement a peace accord.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, said at his first press conference that he would stick to the pledge he made at Aqaba despite opposition from Palestinian militant groups.
Three militant groups, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, which have links to the ruling Fatah party, jointly attacked an Israeli army post and killed four soldiers on Sunday in a direct challenge to Abu Mazen's pledge to end the "armed intifada".
But Abu Mazen said yesterday that he would not order a crackdown against the militants and urged them to resume talks on a ceasefire.Reuse content