West Bank Settlements Block 'Road Map'

Smoking a cigarette on the porch of her trailer in a tiny West Bank outpost, Ile Lebendiker knows her presence here is a thorn in the side of the Palestinians. Now it's also the target of an internationally backed Mideast peace plan.

The "road map" plan, centerpiece of a summit set for Wednesday, mandates that dozens of Jewish outposts like this — which are not part of the 150 more established "settlements" — must be removed.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) told his Cabinet that at the Wednesday meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) and President Bush, he will pledge to take down some of them. Other Israeli officials say the number might be as small as 10.

Lebendiker, 22, sees her decision to live here as an extension of her political belief that giving land to the Palestinians will never bring peace. Her presence might force Israel to reconsider how much land it is willing to give up in any peace agreement, she says.

"If no one sits here, [Israel] will return it all. If someone is sitting here, it makes it more difficult," she said.

Settlers went on a land grab with the blessing of then-Foreign Minister Sharon after a Mideast summit in 1998, setting up tiny outposts on hilltops across the West Bank in an effort to prevent the transfer of land to the Palestinians. Some were allowed to be set up under moderate premier Ehud Barak (search) in 1999 and 2000, but most were created since Sharon assumed office in March 2001.

According to the Israeli group Peace Now (search), there are 102 West Bank outposts, many of them nothing more than a few trailers. About 230,000 Jewish settlers live in 150 other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hard-line Israelis says the settlements reinforce their claim to Biblical lands. But many other Israelis say the illegal outposts get in the way of a deal that could unburden their country of the costly occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And some complain that the outposts needlessly endanger the soldiers sent to protect them.

Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a state and consider all the settlements, old and new, to be illegal encroachment on their land. However, the new outposts, illegal even under Israeli law, are especially problematic to them.

Removing the outposts and stopping the expansion of veteran settlements "is the only way to end this ongoing cycle of violence," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib.

The U.S.-backed peace plan, which envisions an end to 32 months of violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, requires Israel to immediately dismantle outposts erected since March 2001.

Palestinians see places like Ashael (search), the outpost where Lebendiker lives, as continuing proof that Israel has no intention of seriously negotiating for peace. They doubt that Sharon will ever remove any.

"We'll believe it when we see it. They keep talking about dismantling outposts, but they never do it," Khatib said. "We've learned not to take seriously any Israeli statements, but only actions."

Israeli officials say they will remove settlements that are blatantly illegal and serve no security function. However, one of the precepts of the settlement movement has always been that any Israeli presence in the West Bank strengthens the security of Israel.

Israeli opponents of the settlement movement disagree.

"I don't know of any settlements that are vital for Israelis' security interests," said Dror Etkes, a Peace Now official. "All the settlements are an incredible burden on the Israeli security, economy, culture, morality and so on."

Ashael is typical of the new outposts — seven Israelis living in four trailers. It was set up less than two years ago on the recommendation of the Settlers' Council (search).

Lebendiker defends her settlement, less than half a mile from the border with Israel in a rural area, as less provocative than some sitting in the middle of heavily populated Palestinian areas.

"We are not bothering anyone," she said, taking in the view of rolling, rocky hills about nine miles south of the city of Hebron.

Sharon's statement about removing outposts puzzled Lebendiker and many of the other settlers, who felt they had the government's permission when they set up their homes.

"I don't know how illegal it is," she said. "I didn't come here at night, when it was dark, and build the house when no one could see it."

But she also admits: "We knew from the beginning that this could happen."

As Lebendiker, a kindergarten teacher, sat on her porch sipping tea from a small glass and smoking cigarettes, an Israeli soldier stood guard, scanning the hills through a pair of binoculars.

Two months ago, amid fears the outpost would be a target for Palestinian militants, the Israeli army sent four soldiers to protect it.

Lebendiker says she and her neighbors opposed the move.

"We didn't want to be a burden," she said.