| Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at a news conference in Ramallah on Monday. (Reuters)
Neve Erez (West Bank), June 9 (Reuters): Israeli troops began dismantling settler outposts in the West Bank today, destroying empty caravans and a water tower as part of Israel’s obligations under a US-backed “road map” to peace.
The operation coincided with a new appeal by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas for militants to halt attacks on Israelis, as required by the road map. The Islamic group Hamas rebuffed his call but said it would consider renewing dialogue.
A Reuters television cameraman said army tractors dismantled the uninhabited settler outpost of Neve Erez near the West Bank city of Ramallah, destroying two caravans. Witnesses said troops tore down a water tower at the outpost of Amona North, near the established West Bank settlement of Ofra. But they did not touch caravans housing some 100 settlers about 200 metres away.
“These are provocative outposts, a challenge to the rule of law in Israel, which is unacceptable even without (Abbas) and peace talks,” justice minister Yosef Lapid told Army Radio.
He said Israel would use “minimal force” to evacuate any settlers who resisted. Army Radio said seven outposts, only one them inhabited, would be taken down over the next day.
Settler leader Benzi Lieberman said settlers would not fight the soldiers. But he told a news conference: “We will bring to the outposts and streets of Israeli cities tens of thousands of (protesters)”.
The international community says all Jewish settlements are illegal, including the 145 established by Israeli governments on land seized in the 1967 war. Israel disputes this.
It was not immediately clear how many of the some 60 settler outposts established in the West Bank without Israeli government permission would be uprooted. Israel’s Peace Now group estimates about half are uninhabited.
The road map mandates the removal of settler outposts set up since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001. It also calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence and reciprocal steps leading to a Palestinian state by 2005.
Sharon pledged to begin dismantling unauthorised outposts immediately at a landmark summit in Aqaba, Jordan, on Wednesday with US President George W. Bush and Abbas.
Many of the unauthorised outposts are sparsely populated clusters of caravans on lonely hilltops in the West Bank, where settlers want to extend their hold over land the Palestinians claim for a state of their own.
In a bid to fulfil his pledges at the Aqaba summit, Abbas denounced new attacks by militant groups that threaten the road map and vowed to press on with efforts to coax them back into ceasefire talks.
“We must exert all our efforts to stop this bloodbath and pursue a peaceful settlement,” Abbas said after attacks yesterday in which five Israeli soldiers were killed and troops shot dead five Palestinian gunmen.
The reformist Abbas, who took office in April, seemed intent on damage control in the face of Palestinian criticism he was too conciliatory towards Israel at the summit. He appealed to Hamas for a resumption of ceasefire talks it broke off after Aqaba.