JERUSALEM – Israel's Cabinet on Sunday affirmed it will dismantle 24 illegal West Bank (search) settlement outposts but did not say when they will be removed and evaded a decision on the fate of 81 other such enclaves.
The decision fell short of U.S. and Palestinian demands for a speedy dismantling of all outposts, but Cabinet ministers said their removal must wait until after a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) this summer.
In their weekly meeting, the ministers discussed a highly critical report that blamed the government for helping to set up and expand a total of 105 such outposts in the past decade.
According to the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan, Israel must remove all the outposts created since March 2001 — 24 according to the outpost report. Seventy-one outposts were built before that date, and in 10 cases it was not clear when they were set up.
Palestinians charge that the tiny outposts are the seeds of full-scale settlements meant to carve up the West Bank into cantons and prevent them from creating a state. Palestinians demand removal of all the settlements, new and old.
Israel accepted the road map in 2003, but both sides failed to carry out their initial obligations. Palestinians did not move to dismantle violent groups, and Israel did not remove the outposts or halt construction in veteran settlements.
The report on the outposts, commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search), implicated government officials in the creation of the enclaves. The study outlined a system in which an antenna or temporary structure would appear on a hilltop, government agencies would build roads, lay electricity lines, post soldiers as guards — all without the formal Cabinet approval required by law.
"The government reiterated its commitment to take down the 24 outposts established since March 2001," said Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon of the moderate Labor Party, but added that no timetable was approved. Six outposts whose removal has been approved by the courts should be taken down now, he said.
Ministers from Sharon's Likud Party said removal would have to await completion of a larger project — evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank in the summer. The plan has stirred intense opposition from settlers and their backers, including key members of Likud, with extremists threatening violent resistance.
In the West Bank, supporters of the Islamic Hamas and ruling Fatah movements clashed at a university in Hebron in a brawl over student council elections, injuring at least nine people.
Hamas said Saturday that it would field candidates in a Palestinian parliamentary election. The election is set for July, only the second since the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994. Hamas boycotted the 1996 vote, refusing to recognize the interim Palestinian-Israeli peace accords that set up the legislature.
For Hamas, this is the first foray into election politics, having made its name up to now with welfare programs for destitute Palestinians alongside dozens of bomb attacks in Israel. Because of widespread voter dissatisfaction with corruption and inefficiency, Fatah stands to take a beating at the polls, with Hamas as a main beneficiary.
In an interview on Israel TV, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he hopes for a truce declaration by all Palestinian factions at a meeting in Cairo this week. He also called on Israel to dismantle its separation barrier along the West Bank, saying that it cuts many Palestinians off from their lands and destroys trust.
On Monday, Palestinian Interior Minister Nasser Yousef, in charge of security services, is to meet Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, according to a Palestinian official. Israel Radio said the two would discuss the five West Bank towns to be turned over to Palestinian control.