Israeli Soldiers Dismantle Three Settler Outposts

Israeli soldiers dismantled three unpopulated settlement outposts Wednesday, and Defense Ministry officials said more illegal enclaves, including inhabited ones, will be targeted soon.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, the military demolished two homes of suspected Palestinian militants. In an orchard in northern Israel, near the West Bank, an explosion went off without causing harm, and police were investigating whether a bomb intended for an attack blew up prematurely.

The campaign to dismantle settlement outposts is being led by Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, leader of the moderate Labor Party, a junior partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition.

Settler leaders on Tuesday accused Ben-Eliezer of targeting the enclaves for internal political reasons. Ben-Eliezer faces a tough battle for re-election as party chief in November, and his detractors allege that he moved against the outposts to win votes from the dovish wing of the party.

Dozens of outposts have been established by settlers on isolated West Bank hilltops since 1998, in hopes of thwarting the transfer of land to the Palestinians in a future peace deal. The enclaves are typically a few miles away from established settlements and consist of shipping containers, mobile homes, a generator and a water tank. Soldiers have been deployed to guard the populated enclaves.

The authorities made several halfhearted attempts to dismantle the outposts in the past, with limited success.

Israel Army Radio said Wednesday that Sharon had no plan to interfere with the dismantling of the outposts. As foreign minister in 1998, at a time when his government was engaged in land-for-peace talks with the Palestinians, Sharon encouraged settlers to grab more hilltops.

The three outposts dismantled Wednesday were located in the central West Bank.

Deputy Defense Minister Weizman Shiri, a Labor member, said more outposts, including populated ones, would be dismantled soon. "The state of Israel has to decide if these people (settlers) are above the law," Shiri said.

The Settlers' Council said in a statement that the dismantling of the outposts was a "reward for terror;" many were set up at the scene of Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers.

"We will of course oppose in every legal way possible in order to cancel this decision," a settler leader, Benzi Lieberman.

The army has given settler leaders a list of dozens of settlement outposts that the Defense Ministry has ordered dismantled. The Defense Ministry dismantled 11 outposts on June 30.

In a village near the West Bank city of Nablus, troops razed the family homes of Maher Bisher and Bilal Abbas, members of the Islamic militant group Hamas who are in Israeli custody.

Residents were only able to take a few possessions before soldiers blew up the buildings, witnesses said. Several nearby homes were damaged, some seriously, by the blasts.

The army said Abbas and Bisher killed an Israeli couple and wounded two of their children in a shooting attack in August.

The army says house demolitions serve as a deterrent, while Palestinians say the practice amounts to collective punishment and violates international law. The army has destroyed more than 30 Palestinian homes since July.

In Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, troops lifted a curfew for the first time in 20 days. Army bulldozers removed several earthen barriers that had closed streets in the city.

Israeli troops reoccupied Nablus, along with most other West Bank towns, in mid-June, and since then have only sporadically lifted the curfew. Israel says Nablus is a stronghold of militants who have been attacking Israelis.

The governor of the Nablus district, Mahmoud Aloul, said he met earlier this week with Israeli military officials and promised to try to persuade the militants to halt attacks.