The Israeli military plans to disarm residents of four Jewish settlements in the West Bank two weeks before the communities are to be dismantled this summer, officials said Monday, reflecting growing concern that settler resistance in the West Bank (search) will be far more difficult to put down than in the fenced-in Gaza Strip.
Access for Israeli extremists already living in the West Bank to the four tiny northern settlements is relatively easy, and the warning conjured images of thousands of ultranationalists converging on the settlements to prevent their evacuation — as they have resisted removal of unauthorized outposts in recent months.
Officials expressed concern about armed confrontations, and settlers said Monday they would not hand in their guns.
Tension abated somewhat in the Gaza Strip (search) after a weekend of Palestinian mortar and rocket attacks in retaliation for Israel's killing of three teenagers. After a quiet day, two mortar rounds fell in a Gaza settlement and another on military post after nightfall, the military said, causing some damage but no casualties.
Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) said that in a phone call Sunday, he demanded that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) deploy police in southern Gaza to stop the attacks. Speaking after briefing the parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, Mofaz stopped short of threatening retaliation.
"We consider every step carefully with a will to continue the process," he told reporters, "but when the time comes we will provide security to the state's citizens."
The flare-up endangered a two-month truce that has drastically reduced violence and casualties on both sides, but Israel continues to charge that Abbas is not doing enough to rein in militants. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) said he raised the issue with President Bush during their meeting Monday in Texas.
Bush prodded Sharon to abandon plans to expand a key Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Sharon said he agreed with Bush on the outlines of the internationally negotiated "road map" peace plan, but that some settlements in the West Bank are considered part of Israel and would remain under his government's control.
Sharon also said Israel would not move forward on the road map until the Palestinians take more steps to crack down on and disarm militant groups and ensure "a full cessation of terror." While Abbas has begun to act against terror organizations, recent violence against Israel shows that "terror is still continuing" and that Abbas "must take more steps."
Referring to the mood in Israel, Sharon said in an interview with NBC News, "The tension here, the atmosphere here looks like the eve of the civil war. All my life I was defending life of Jews. Now for the first time, steps I'm taking to protect me from Jews."
In a statement, Palestinian officials charged Israel with serious violations of the truce agreement, noting the killing of the three teenagers, an arrest raid early Monday in Nablus, and failure to turn over three of five West Bank towns to Palestinian security control.
In the West Bank city of Hebron, dozens of Palestinians stoned one of their own police stations, witnesses said, in another example of lawlessness in Palestinian-controlled areas.
Armed gangs have recently been clashing with Palestinian security forces on numerous occasions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite Abbas' efforts to impose a single law throughout the Palestinian areas.
Israeli officials concentrated on their own militants Monday, warning of armed resistance in the West Bank when police and soldiers come to evacuate the four enclaves. Just 500 settlers live there, compared with 9,000 in 21 Gaza settlements — but with its biblical links, the West Bank has always inspired the more fanatical among the settlers.
"We are worried more about settlers coming from the outside, not necessarily the residents," said a military official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity.
Officials said troops will collect all military-issue weapons from residents of the four settlements about two weeks before the pullout.
The residents will be asked to turn in their weapons voluntarily, they said.
The Yediot Ahronot daily quoted a senior military officer as saying "violent cells" have already been established in two of the West Bank settlements slated for evacuation, Sa-Nur and Homesh.
Chaim Weiss, the secretary of Homesh, said there are no plans to confront soldiers during evacuation.
However, he said settlers would refuse to give up their weapons. "We need to defend ourselves and our families ... I think it will be a tragedy to take our weapons," Weiss said.