JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel is considering pulling down two more settlement outposts in the West Bank ahead of March 28 elections, government officials said Thursday, a day after settlers fought a bloody battle with police, who demolished a cluster of homes at an outpost.
The fight at the Amona outpost injured more than 200 people and was among the most violent confrontations between settlers and security forces. It underscored the political divisions in the country as acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought to establish that his new Kadima Party would not cave in to settlers.
The confrontation did not appear to have hurt the government. A poll published in the Yediot Ahronot daily Thursday showed 57 percent of those questioned believed the settlers were at fault for the violence and only 16 percent blamed the security forces. The poll of 500 people had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Israeli governments have long supported the settlements as a way to entrench Israeli control over the West Bank, which was captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Excerpts from a report released Thursday said that more than US$14 billion has been spent on West Bank settlements over the years. Most of the money was spent by the government, according to the report by the independent Israeli Research Institute for Economic and Social Affairs.
The government has never given a total figure for settlement spending, which is divided among various ministries in the budget. Israeli commentators said the Amona violence highlighted the increasing gulf between the settler movement, long supported by the government, and mainstream Israel.
“The scars on a female soldier’s face, which someone engraved yesterday with broken glass, may heal. The ugly national scars that opened will no longer be possible to sweep under the rug,” commentator Alex Fishman wrote in Yediot on Thursday.
Government officials said Thursday that two other outposts ruled illegal could be dismantled before the election. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. Further evacuations could bring more violence, since both settlers and the government are determined not to give in over outposts ahead of elections. The clashes are also a harbinger of what could lie ahead of Olmert, the front-runner in the election, withdraws from more areas of the West Bank and dismantle additional Jewish settlements, as he is widely expected to do after the election.
Olmert has said he is ready to make painful territorial concessions as part of a negotiated peace agreement, but has signaled he will act unilaterally to protect Israel’s security if an agreement is not possible.
The victory of the Hamas militant group in Palestinian legislative elections last week dashed hopes for a resumption of long-stalled peace talks and increased the likelihood of further unilateral actions following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements last year.
Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel, is expected to form a government in the coming weeks. Western governments and Egyptian officials are pushing the group to renounce violence, recognize Israel and honor past peace deals in the wake of its surprise election victory.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas planned to meet Hamas leaders in Gaza on Friday to consult on the forming the next Palestinian government, a Palestinian official close to Abbas said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
Under the internationally-backed “road map” peace plan, the Palestinians committed to dismantling militant groups. Abbas has declined to do that and instead has worked to bring Hamas into the government, hoping that would moderate the group.
Under the road map, Israel committed to evacuate about two dozen of the scores of unauthorized outposts throughout the West Bank, but so far has taken little action against them.
Jewish settlers hope the outposts will prevent Israel from withdrawing from West Bank land. The battle over Amona, an Israeli hilltop enclave in the heart of the West Bank, was seen as a test for Olmert, who has said he would act with determination against settlers violating the law.
“The behavior of the settlers cannot be tolerated,” Olmert said. “Today they crossed every line.” The rioters, most of them young Orthodox Jews, including girls, pelted police with eggs, rocks, sand and paint-filled balloons from their rooftop strongholds.
The military said 32 were arrested at the scene along with “dozens of other rioters” in the area.
Police burst into the homes, climbing ladders and riding in the shovels of bulldozers to reach the rooftops. Thick black smoke from burning tires rose into the air, covering the area with a bitter stench, as police aimed water cannons at the rioters.
The houses were cleared out one by one, and bulldozers and large jackhammers immediately knocked down the buildings. The remainder of the outpost, including a synagogue, playground and cramped trailer homes inhabited by about 35 families, wasn’t affected.
Israel’s rescue service said 219 people were injured, including 10 people in moderate to serious condition. Among the wounded were more than 50 police officers, one with serious head wounds, and two ultranationalist lawmakers, Effie Eitam and Arieh Eldad, who supported the protesters.