Israeli settlement evacuation appears mostly symbolic

Only 1 of 4 mentioned in the order is inhabited

December 30, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAT AYIN MAARAV, West Bank - The Israeli government ordered Sunday the evacuation of four unauthorized Israeli outposts in the West Bank, circumventing for the first time lengthy legal procedures that have complicated government efforts to reverse the incremental spread of Jewish settlements.

But judging from the size of one of the targeted outposts on a hilltop near here, the move is mostly symbolic: The West Bat Ayin Maarav outpost consists of two steel shipping containers that local residents say have sat empty for years.

"There is no West Bat Ayin Maarav, there is only Bat Ayin Maarav," said a blue-eyed man with a flowing beard in the hardscrabble hillside outpost that is gradually evolving from a collection of plywood and linoleum trailers to solid stone buildings looking across the coastal lowlands to the Mediterranean Sea. He dismissed the distant shipping containers as insignificant. Others claimed not to know they were there.

Though Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's aides called the order a historic move, there is little evidence that the government is committed to more than incremental steps in clearing the West Bank of the dozens of larger outposts that have sprung up since Sharon came to power in February 2001.

Many in Israel took Sunday's order as evidence that the government has decided for now not to touch larger, more heavily populated outposts such as Bat Ayin Maarav or the even larger Migron, home to 150-odd settlers north of Jerusalem.

Only one of the four outposts mentioned in Sunday's order is inhabited, and that - Ginot Aryeh - is a ramshackle collection of a dozen plywood trailers a few hundred feet from the well-established stone villas of a large government-authorized settlement, Ofra, north of Jerusalem.

"It's all politics," complained Pinchas Yamin, one of Ginot Aryeh's two dozen residents, when asked why his small, dilapidated hamlet had been singled out for evacuation.

But Sharon's office defended the move as a step toward fulfilling the government's commitment under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map that has been stalled for months. Washington has pressured Sharon to follow through on its commitments under the plan, which includes removing dozens of unauthorized outposts.

"Look, you have to start somewhere," said Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin. "The important thing is that we're adopting a new procedure."

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