Israel to evacuate West Bank outposts

Israel is mobilizing 4,000 police and soldiers to forcibly remove Jewish settlers from two unauthorized West Bank outposts, military officials said Thursday, a possible sign that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to deal more firmly with settlers than previous Israeli leaders. Israel's 243,000 settlers have traditionally wielded influence far in excess of their numbers. Settlers have set up scores of unauthorized outposts throughout the West Bank, and some extremists have attacked Palestinians and cut down their olive trees without being punished.

Over the weekend, settlers angry at the government's plan to evict Jewish squatters from an empty Palestinian market in the West Bank town of Hebron, went on a rampage, burning empty Palestinian stores and homes and scuffling with police.

The violence, also aimed at the government's plan to dismantle another outpost, Amona, in the central West Bank, sparked a rare bout of soul searching by government and security officials, who rued being too lenient with extremist settlers in the past and warned that extremist settlers were trying to set up a breakaway state in the West Bank.

"There is a large group, partly young people, who don't recognize the legitimacy of the state of Israel, not the government, not the law-enforcing institutions, not the police, not the army," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio. "We have to deal with this." Olmert, who took over the running of the government after Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's stroke two weeks ago, responded angrily to the Hebron violence and said he would deal firmly with settlers who break the law. Government officials said he was considering holding settler lawbreakers without trial or charge, a procedure Israel usually only uses Palestinians.

He also called on Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to draw up detailed plans to evacuate all the unauthorized outposts erected since 2001, which Israel had committed to dismantle in 2003 under the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan. Government officials estimated that roughly two dozen of the more than 100 unauthorized outposts set up since 1997 would be dismantled under the road map. The Palestinians have also not fulfilled their initial road map commitment to dismantle militant groups.

The army declared the settlement in Hebron a closed military zone Monday and police expelled dozens of youth who came there to protest the planned evacuation of the nearby market. The army on Thursday stopped enforcing the restrictions, saying most protesters had left and settlement leaders promised to keep things quiet.

Though the Hebron eviction notices were sent out before Sharon's stroke, Olmert's tough talk on the outposts could be part of an effort to cast himself as a moderate ahead of March 28 elections. Olmert is expected to lead Sharon's centrist Kadima Party, which has a crushing lead in the polls into the election. "We think there is a malicious trend and cynical political use of the police and the army so Olmert can curry favor with the left," said Hebron settler leader Orit Struck, reports the AP. N.U.