Troops tear down illegal Israeli settlements

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The Independent Online

They came in their hundreds, picking their way across fields and up the steep hillsides to gather on a remote, windswept hilltop in the West Bank. From a distance, amid the beauty of the hills, it looked like some great ritual gathering, but as you got close, you could see the crowd on the hill punching and kicking each other.

From time to time, there was a yelp of pain or a cry of rage. And, every now and then, people came rushing out of the crowd carrying a stretcher with someone writhing on top of it.

This was the scene as the Israeli army tried to dismantle the first inhabited Jewish settlement in the West Bank to be cleared under the road-map peace plan. With the US Secretary of State Colin Powell due to arrive today for talks on the plan backed by President Bush, the Israeli army decided to go ahead with the evacuations it has been putting off for weeks.

On the road to the settlement, a couple of army bulldozers were stuck, unable to move because a crowd of settlers were sitting in front of them. It was extraordinary to see the Israeli army, which regularly uses live ammunition against Palestinian protesters, brought to a standstill by a few unarmed youths.

When peace activists tried the same tactic against Israeli bulldozers trying to tear down Palestinian houses in the Gaza Strip, it went tragically wrong and an American activist, Rachel Corrie, was crushed to death by a bulldozer. But it was Israeli houses being demolished yesterday and the army was careful. Most of the soldiers were armed only with knives.

Although 30 people were wounded, it was hard to escape the impression this was all something of a show for General Powell's benefit. The word was the Americans were demanding some action on the road-map from the Israelis to coincide with the Secretary of State's visit, and the Israeli army, which usually shoos journalists away, especially when it is demolishing Palestinian houses, went out of its way to give reporters access so there would be plenty of pictures.

From the drama on the hilltop, you would think hundreds of people were about to lose their homes and the whole settlement project was under threat. In fact, all the Israeli army came to tear down was a couple of tents, a rather temporary looking concrete house with a tin roof and a small metal hut that looked as if it was about to collapse under the weight of the news photographers and television cameramen who climbed on it.

President Bush has said the issue of settlements must be "dealt with". They are built on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, the remaining 22 per cent of British-mandate Palestine where Palestinians want to set up the independent state they are promised under the plan. The settlements, all of which are illegal by international law, and the bypass roads to reach them, cut the West Bank into chunks and make setting up a state here difficult.

At the Aqaba summit, Ariel Sharon pledged to dismantle only the "unauthorised outposts", small hilltops seized by ideological settlers without Israeli government permission, such as the one at Mitzpe Yitzhar, set up in hastily to claim the land as Jewish and prevent a Palestinian state being set up here.

In the opposite direction from where the cameras were pointing yesterday were five more hilltops, each with a couple of wooden houses on top, all of them settlements that are as much an obstacle to a peace deal as the tents of Mitzpe Yitzhar, but none of them scheduled to be dismantled because they were put up before the cut-off date in the road-map when Ariel Sharon came to power as Prime Minister.

As one of the young settlers who walked for miles to get around police roadblocks to reach Mitzpe Yitzhar said: "This is just a present from Israel for Mr Powell." His grandparents on his mother's side emigrated to Israel from Britain, he said. He lived in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, south of Bethlehem.

The settlers were adamant that if the soldiers succeeded in dismantling the settlement, they would just wait a few days and come back . But it didn't stop the "Hilltop Youth" - young settlers, many of them teenagers, known for attacking Palestinian areas and getting into fights with the Israeli army. We encountered them on their way to Mitzpe Yitzhar yesterday. They resembled English football hooligans, standing in the way of cars, trying to pick fights with photographers and running into the fray, kicking and punching and yelling in excitement They had set fire to the hillsides to stop soldiers reaching Mitzpe Yitzhar. The burning wheat that sent smoke into the sky belonged, of course, to Palestinian farmers.

Eventually, the soldiers pushed their way through the scrum yesterday and a tent came down to ironic applause. Two soldiers carried it off, but the fight went on. If all outposts are this difficult to dismantle, it will be a long summer.

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