JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel will likely begin a crackdown on Jewish settler outposts in the occupied West Bank when U.S. President George W. Bush visits the region next week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s top deputy said on Friday.
The outposts, clusters of caravans or shacks erected without state approval, and the expansion of existing settlements are obstacles to Bush’s bid to revive peace talks before he steps down.
A U.S.-sponsored “road map” for a Palestinian state next to Israel requires the removal of outposts and a halt to all settlement growth. “I hope and assess that in the coming period and thereafter, during the U.S. president’s visit to Israel and afterwards, real steps will be taken to remove those outposts,” Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Israel Radio.
Palestinians say all the settlements, branded illegal by the World Court, should go. Israel says it will keep major settlement blocs under any deal, although Olmert last week ordered a de facto construction freeze.
Bush, due to make his first presidential visit to Israel and Palestinian areas during a Middle East tour between Jan. 8 and 16, told Reuters in an interview on Thursday he would press the Jewish state over the settlement issue. “I will talk about Israeli settlement expansion, about how that is, that can be, you know, an impediment to success,” he said. “The unauthorised outposts for example need to be dismantled, like the Israelis said they would do.”
Israel has removed a few outposts in operations that often sparked violent confrontations between police and settlers. On occasion, settlers returned to rebuild.
Ramon did not give details on which outposts might now be dismantled. But he said a crackdown would focus on those outside Israel’s West Bank barrier. “Certainly those illegal outposts located east of the fence” would be on the removal roster, Ramon said.
Israel calls the barrier, a vast network of fences and concrete barricades, a bulwark against suicide bombers but Palestinians suspect it is designed to demarcate a future border that would annex big settlement blocs.
The Palestinians, who have yet to meet their own road map obligation to rein in militant factions that have spearheaded fighting against the Jewish state since 2000, say the Israelis must commit to a more sweeping removal of settlements. “We say that all settlement, in all its forms, is an illegal and illegitimate act and it is a form of aggression that should be terminated along with the termination of occupation,” chief Palestinian peace negotiator Ahmed Qurie said on Thursday.
Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally relaunched negotiations at a November conference convened by Bush. But the talks bogged down when Israel’s Housing Ministry announced plans to build homes on occupied land near Jerusalem.
Last week, Olmert ordered that any new settlement projects be subject to his approval, effectively freezing construction.