AMONA, West Bank – Settlers threatened to turn out by the thousands to disrupt the dismantling of their West Bank (search) outposts as demanded by a U.S.-backed peace plan, while Palestinians dismissed the Israeli efforts as a deception.
In its first tentative steps toward implementing the "road map" (search) plan, Israeli soldiers on Monday knocked down empty structures at five unauthorized outposts, an army statement said. Israel Radio said early Tuesday that four others were dismantled, one by settlers. All were uninhabited.
Both sides greeted the measures with skepticism. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) on Monday faced the wrath of his one-time settler backers, while Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) countered criticism of his call to stop attacks against Israelis.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo dismissed the removal of the outposts as "a game of deception through the evacuation of some of the empty trailers in order to give legitimacy" to dozens of other settlements established during Sharon's term.
Most of the outposts slated by the Israeli government for removal were like Amona, a hilltop site consisting of a single watch tower near the veteran settlement of Ofra, northeast of the Palestinian town of Ramallah.
Soldiers upended the rickety tower and loaded it on a truck, but settlers blocked the access road, preventing the truck from leaving. Teenagers directed younger children rolling large rocks onto the road.
Soldiers pleaded with the children to move the rock barrier.
"Believe me, I respect what you're doing and in your place would do the same, but please take it down," one said. They refused.
Settler leaders threatened much more of the same.
"We are beginning the struggle for the land of Israel, over the fact that they are trying to tear us away from homelands," said Bentzi Lieberman, chairman of the Settlers Council, but he pledged that resistance would be nonviolent.
"We have thousands, even tens of thousands, who are ready to fight," said another leader, Adi Mintz.
Army Radio reported early Tuesday that hundreds of settlers had converged on four outposts overnight.
Settlers were among Sharon's key backers because of his past record of as a top settlement patron. Now, many settlers feel he has betrayed their cause. "He is afraid to look us in the eye," said council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.
Meanwhile, Abbas was dealing with his own opposition. At the summit, he called for an end to the "military intefadeh," attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants. In 32 months of violence, 782 people have been killed on the Israeli side and 2,370 on the Palestinian side.
On Monday, Abbas criticized Palestinian militant groups that brazenly rebuffed his call by raiding an army post in Gaza on Sunday and killing four soldiers. The three militants, one each from the main extremist groups, were killed.
"We must do our utmost to end the bloodshed ... and continue with the political process so we can convince the world that this is our path," Abbas told reporters in Ramallah.
Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was expected to arrive Tuesday for talks with Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders to try to revive the truce idea, according to diplomatic sources in Cairo.
Abbas did not praise the removal of Israeli outposts, saying that the Palestinians reject all the settlements as illegal, not just the tiny outposts.
Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomed the operation. "I hope that in discharging this commitment, they would be able to remove these unauthorized outposts in a peaceful way," Powell said during a visit to Santiago, Chile.
With additional outposts slated for removal, settler leaders said they are organizing transports to bring thousands of backers to the sites with tents and sleeping bags before the army arrives, to obstruct the evacuation.
According to the road map plan, settlements established since March 1, 2001 must be dismantled. Sharon pledged to remove illegal outposts, but he did not commit to a number.
Israeli media said 15 outposts, most uninhabited, were to be dismantled. Peace Now, a group that opposes settlements, says that 117 unauthorized outposts have been put up since 1996, 62 since March 1, 2001. Most have fewer than a dozen residents.
The media reports said the government had a list of 94 outposts but did not divide them into ones established before and after the March 1, 2001 cutoff date. The Settlers Council, in a statement, denied that the government had presented it with either a list of 15 outposts to be evacuated or an overall list of 94.