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Mideast peace plan prescribes mammoth task of uprooting Jewish settlers

By JASON KEYSER, Associated Press

HAVAT GILAD, West Bank (May 7, 2003 4:51 p.m. EDT) - This hilltop seized by Israeli settlers two years ago stood deserted for a few days after army bulldozers ripped up two trailer homes. But the squatters quickly returned - as they have to other West Bank outposts the army sought to dismantle.

On a recent afternoon at Havat Gilad, or Gilad's farm, men moved among sheds and tractors on the 125-acre plot. Horses grazed and a few dogs suffered in the desert heat.

Removing more than 60 such outposts is one of Israel's first tasks in the new U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan, the "road map" to Palestinian statehood.

And its poor record so far underscores the mammoth difficulties ahead in dismantling the much larger settlements built over the past 35 years in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - some now full-fledged towns, with colleges, factories and high-rise apartment buildings.

Palestinian officials and Israeli peace activists say Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is not serious about removing the outposts. On the contrary, they say, the government is quietly backing them as a way of getting around Israel's promise to the United States not to sanction new settlements.

In many cases the government appears to be helping, not confronting the squatters. Soldiers are assigned to guard them and settlers say they have government help in paving roads to some outposts.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said Israel's attempts to take down a few outposts were just for show.

"Removing a trailer here or there is intended for the media," he said.

Sharon has been a driving force in settlement expansion over the years. In 1998, as foreign minister, he urged settlers to seize hilltops, even after he participated in U.S.-led talks with the Palestinians on a land handover.

Were he to move against the settlers now, Sharon might have to search for new political allies to save his coalition. Two nationalist parties are already threatening to walk out, though the moderate Labor Party, now in the opposition, could take their place.

In recent years, settlers have established 115 outposts, most home to just one or two families living in trailers or cargo containers.

Since Sharon became prime minister in March 2001, the army has dismantled 11 outposts, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group monitoring settlement expansion. Of the remainder, 61 were set up during Sharon's tenure and would have to be dismantled quickly under the road map.

Among those slated for removal is Havat Gilad, set up in 2001 and named after a settler killed in a Palestinian shooting attack nearby. A single family lives on the hill, tending to vegetable gardens.

In October, army bulldozers removed two trailers. Over several days, Israeli troops were pitted against hundreds of stone-throwing youths from nearby settlements.

Since then, a large tent and electric light poles have sprung back up. Two barefoot teens shooed reporters away during a recent visit, warning they were trespassing.

Settlers expect many of the outposts to be declared legal retroactively, spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef said.

Indeed, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has stopped short of pledging to remove all outposts, saying he is reviewing their legality. The Defense Ministry says a majority of the outposts are extensions of existing settlements.

Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now said it's the same tactic used in establishing the first settlements in the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is the scandal behind the outposts," he said. "They're facts on the ground that will become settlements."

Harder than removing Havat Gilad will be tearing down the some 150 larger settlement communities where 215,000 people live.

Some are near the Israel-West Bank border, and could perhaps be incorporated into Israel as part of a peace settlement that includes slight border changes.

But others greatly complicate any effort to draw a border. Ariel, which grew from a cluster of canvas tents and trailers to a sprawling town of 18,000, is deep in the northern West Bank.

The second-largest town in the West Bank, Ariel boasts tree-lined boulevards and a college of 8,000 students. There's a 100-room hotel, seven schools, a sports complex, a cultural center, a library, an industrial park that provides 6,000 jobs, a science park complete with nuclear accelerator, shopping centers and a retirement village. A 580-seat performing arts center is going up.

There are many draws: a new highway cuts the 30-mile commute to Tel Aviv to a half hour. Cheaper, government-subsidized housing means a two-bedroom apartment costs just $70,000. The Education Ministry has declared Ariel's schools the best in Israel.

At Ariel's local government offices, one can get a passport or a driver's license.

"There was nothing here," said Mayor Ron Nachman, who set up tents on the desert hill 25 years ago. "Only donkeys climbed these mountains, and we built a city."

Now, he said, "No one can move us, no one. And they (the Palestinians) know it."

Further east, 160 families live in Shilo, alongside the main highway connecting the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron.

Many Shilo residents are motivated by a religious attachment to the biblical land: it is built near what is believed to be the site of the Tabernacle, a Jewish temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant more than 3,000 years ago.

Ruth Cropp, 56, an observant Jew who has lived in Shilo with her husband, Peter, for 11 years, says she cannot leave a place of such spiritual significance.

"If they take that away from us, they'll destroy us," she said.

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