Israel Prepares to Evacuate Two West Bank Settlements

Israeli forces evacuated two makeshift settlement outposts in the West Bank on Wednesday, a step to remove a major obstacle to peace talks with Palestinians.

Police and army forces arrived at the first outpost, Harchivi, near the Palestinian town of Nablus, and the five Israelis there fled at the sight of the forces, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. No arrests were made.

At the second outpost also near Nablus, Shvut Ami, Israeli forces wrecked one of two concrete incomplete structures with a backhoe. Before the forces arrived, around 20 teenage protesters gathered at the scene, laying down barbed wire and rocks on the road and posting signs that read: "The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel."

Some protesters lay down on the floor of one of the structures and were carried out by police.

"We want the nation to get behind us," said 17-year-old protester Yedidya Slonin. "We don't feel they're behind us right now but we hope they'll follow."

Both outposts have been dismantled in the past, said Hagit Ofran, who tracks settlement growth for the dovish Israeli group Peace Now.

Israel promised under a 2003 peace plan to evacuate about two dozen outposts. As part of the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, President Bush pressed Israel last week to fulfill its commitment.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said earlier this week that the continued presence of the outposts was a "disgrace," but it was not clear if the government actually planned to make any significant move against them soon. Little action has been taken since he took power two years ago.

Both of the outposts slated for evacuation on Wednesday were thrown up by teenage settlers since the summer, Ofran said. Both were lightly populated, and evacuating them was not a serious move against the more than 100 unauthorized outposts that settlers have erected, she said.

"This is a children's game. They're playing tag with the army and the police," Ofran said.

Outposts range from a single trailer on a hill to thriving settlements with red-roofed homes and hundreds of people. Settlers put them up to prevent the transfer of the disputed land to the Palestinians in any future peace deal.

In February 2006, just weeks after taking office, Olmert sent police to tear down nine unauthorized homes in the Amona outpost, sparking violent clashes with settlers. He has taken no real action in the two years since.

Settlers started putting up outposts across the West Bank after Israel committed to a settlement freeze in its initial peace accords with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. The outposts lack official authorization, but were built with the cooperation of Israeli authorities.

Some 3,000 Israelis live in outposts, according to Peace Now, in addition to about 270,000 who live in more than 120 authorized settlements in the West Bank and 180,000 who live in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Mideast war.