Published August 02, 2003
JERUSALEM – Israel ordered police and soldiers to remove six unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank (search) and evict their occupants as a step toward complying with a U.S.-backed peace plan, a senior official said Saturday.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah (search), meanwhile, Palestinian security officials detained at gunpoint a group of militants who refused a request to leave Yasser Arafat's (search) compound -- an apparent attempt to ease U.S. and Israeli pressure on the Palestinian leader. Arafat has been stuck in the compound for more than a year and a half.
The militants' refusal to leave as a condition for allowing Arafat to travel illustrated the tough task Palestinian authorities face in reining in militant groups as required by the "road map" peace plan. So far, the Palestinians have not moved to disarm the militants or dismantle their organizations, saying they fear civil war and prefer to use persuasion.
Israel also has skirted key obligations of the road map, a blueprint for ending violence and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. The plan is backed by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations (search) and Russia.
An Israeli ministerial committee dealing with another dispute meets Sunday to work out details of a release of several hundred of the 7,700 Palestinian prisoners Israel holds, including members of Islamic militant groups. Palestinians want all the prisoners freed.
The road map requires Israel to remove the 100 or so small outposts put up in the West Bank and Gaza Strip without government authorization since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) took office in March 2001. So far, Israel has only taken down a handful. Israel has also not frozen construction in established Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (search).
The Israeli army said Saturday it had received orders to dismantle six outposts.
A top official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he didn't know when the removal of the first six outposts would occur. The official said Israel would eventually remove all unauthorized outposts, "even if it takes a little longer."
Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat (search) said the latest move was cosmetic.
"Israel must dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001 and freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth. That's the real obligation," he said.
The road map aims for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with "maximum territorial contiguity" -- something the Palestinians say is impossible with some 220,000 Jewish settlers scattered in communities throughout the areas.
Most outposts are clusters of tents or trailer homes housing a few families, and some are uninhabited. Some 1,000 people live in about 100 outposts built without government approval in recent years.
In Ramallah, 17 Palestinian militants were detained at Arafat's headquarters after they rejected a call to leave to help ease Israeli restrictions barring the Palestinian leader from traveling, according to the militants.
The members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group loosely affiliated with Arafat's Fatah movement, were confined to rooms in the compound by armed bodyguards, said Kamel Ghanam, a leader who was among the detained.
He said five agreed to go to the West Bank town of Jericho (search) -- where they apparently would be confined -- but the other 12 vowed to resist attempts to move them and threatened to resume attacks on Israelis if they were forced to go.
"If they force us to leave we will break the truce," Ghanam said.
Al Aqsa has been blamed for several small-scale attacks on Israelis since a temporary cease-fire was declared at the end of June. Although Fatah joined the truce, Al Aqsa is loosely organized and leaders of some branches refused to honor it.
Ghanam said Arafat had asked the men to move because "the world has changed" and he was under intense pressure due to their presence. Another militant in the compound, speaking on condition of anonymity, said removing militants was an Israeli condition for allowing Arafat to travel. Israel now says he's free to leave, but might not be allowed back.
Most of the compound buildings have been destroyed by Israeli tanks and bulldozers. Israel and the United States are boycotting Arafat, accusing him of fomenting terrorism. They prefer to deal with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister appointed in April under intense international pressure.
A spokesman for President Bush said the Palestinians had taken some important steps to end terrorism, but underscored that work needed to be done.
"The president has made it clear that Prime Minister Abbas is taking some important steps to reduce violence and end terrorism, and progress is being made," spokesman Scott McClellan said Saturday from Texas, where Bush arrived for a monthlong stay at his Crawford ranch.
"The president's view, though, is very clear, that everybody must work to end terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations."
Although violence has eased dramatically since the main Palestinian militant groups declared a temporary cease-fire June 29, sporadic deadly violence has persisted.
On Saturday, police, soldiers and civilian volunteers searched northern Israel's Galilee region for an 18-year-old waitress, Dana Bennet, missing since Friday.
Police did not point to a kidnapping by Arabs -- but concerns were high after the body of 20-year-old soldier Oleg Shaichat was found in the same region, in the Galilee, last Monday, a week after he disappeared. Nobody claimed responsibility for Shaichat's death, but police suspect Palestinians or Israeli Arabs.
Also Saturday, a Palestinian teenager was killed and six other people were wounded in two explosions in Gaza, Palestinian security said in a statement.
One blast destroyed a house in Khan Younis, wounding two men. In Deir el-Balah, a 14-year-old was killed and four other teenagers were wounded when explosives went off in their hands.
The statement said the explosives were being stored in houses and it appealed to Palestinians to cooperate with security forces "to fight this phenomenon."