JERUSALEM -- In what may mark the end of rogue Jewish settlement outposts, the Israeli government plans to begin removing hilltop encampments erected illegally over the past couple of years in the West Bank, officials said yesterday.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak received the go-ahead from a special Cabinet committee yesterday to order the dismantling of the small settlements.
"The government is on the verge of telling the military which caravan outposts should be removed," a government source said last night. "The actual implementation depends on how it can be done with minimum friction."
Staking a claim to the biblical land of Israel and hoping to prevent any turnover of West Bank territory to the Palestinians, radical settler groups have been building encampments for years.
The repeated bursts of settlement activity have been a continuing source of friction with Palestinians, and a thorn in the side of U.S. diplomats trying to broker a land-for-peace deal and for Israeli leaders trying to pursue the same goal.
But they were tolerated and at times encouraged by the Likud-led governments of Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yesterday's action was one of a series of cooperative gestures toward the Palestinians in recent weeks that also included a deal on opening a safe passage route next week between the West Bank and Gaza and a planned prisoner release.
Each agreement, however, has been fraught with last-minute haggling. And the atmosphere between the two sides got a violent jolt last night with a report from Israel that three of its off-duty soldiers had been detained and beaten by Palestinian police.
The Cabinet committee reviewed a list of 42 settlements that either had not been approved or were of questionable legality. Up to seven settlements were said to be illegal.
"We took these 42 settlements and ranked them according to their degree of [illegality] or legality," Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh told Army Radio.
"The prime minister says he will not abide flouting the law."
The government laid out the criteria Barak will apply in deciding which settlements to remove. Besides legal questions, he will look at where the settlements are and how close they are to territory that Israel intends to keep in a final settlement with the Palestinians.
Settlements can present a security nightmare to the government because they often deeply anger neighboring Palestinians. The government has to invest heavily to protect a handful of settlers living in mobile homes.
By kicking the decision up to Barak, the Cabinet indicated its division on the subject.
The action allowed Cabinet ministers who are sympathetic to the settlers to avoid identifying themselves with the removal of specific settlements.
Peace Now, the activist group that has campaigned against settlements, said those likely to be targeted included five near Ramallah, one south of Nablus and one southeast of Hebron.
A spokesman for the group, Didi Remez, hailed yesterday's action as potentially historic.
Although West Bank settlements have been removed, this has usually come almost immediately after they were built. Rarely, if ever, have settlements been removed after they have been allowed to develop for some time, he said.
"If one is dismantled, further dismantlement is possible," Remez said.
Benny Kashriel, who heads the YESHA council, the main settler organization, indicated that the settlers would not risk a clash with soldiers by trying to resist being removed.
But he insisted, "If they remove any settlement, we will build it again -- immediately."
Kashriel said settler leaders met with Barak a week after he was elected and agreed, "We will not surprise him by building settlements, and he will not surprise us by evacuating any settlements."
Officials said they would hold a "dialogue" with settler leaders before taking action.
A hold on Jerusalem
By cracking down on illegal settlements, Barak is not abandoning settlement expansion.
Peace Now has complained that his government has outpaced the right-wing Netanyahu government in granting approval for construction in West Bank settlements.
The difference lies in what falls inside and outside the government's strategic plan.
Barak aims to secure Israel's hold on Jerusalem and keep the main established settlements.
Settlements are a key issue in final-status peace talks with the Palestinians, which have not made substantial progress.
Israeli officials will adopt a hard line on some established settlements but are prepared to be flexible with the Palestinians on other areas. The Palestinians are intent on regaining land that is contiguous for their country.