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Israel removes West Bank settlement outpost

The Israeli border police waited till the morning Torah reading was over. Then, after six Jewish families were given time to remove their possessions, a pair of front-end loaders pounded their modest dwellings into twisted wrecks on a bare plateau overlooking the Jordan Valley.

A few young men climbed atop a makeshift synagogue nearby, intent on resisting, but scrambled to safety before it too was demolished.

By afternoon, however, the tiny Jewish outpost in the West Bank was humming with electric drills, saws and orders for building materials shouted into cellphones, a rebuilding attempt that defies Israel’s right-leaning government and the United States.

As the Obama administration endeavors to revive a Middle East peace process, no issue in its relationship with Israel is more problematic than the growth of Jewish settlements on West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. In Thursday’s struggle over the outpost of Maoz Esther, Israel took Washington’s side but stirred a settler backlash that underscores a long-standing rift between the two allies.

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Since Israel captured the West Bank and other territories in the 1967 Middle East War, American administrations have viewed the settlements and smaller outposts as an obstacle to peace. U.S. officials say President Obama wants to show that he can force Israel to halt settlement growth to build support in the Arab world for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and an alliance against Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rising regional influence.

Meeting at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Obama said bluntly that “settlements have to be stopped.”

To Netanyahu, the issue is political and practical. In Washington he rebuffed the administration’s call for a freeze on all settlement growth, in part because right-wing parties in his coalition speak for most of the estimated 280,000 Jewish settlers, those who reject Palestinian statehood and any limits on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Also, he knows that a freeze would stifle the natural growth of Israel’s 121 established West Bank communities. Already he is under pressure from settler leaders to ease restrictions on such growth so young adults in those communities can marry and build near their parents’ homes.

Thursday’s police action represents something U.S. and Israeli officials say they agree on: the inadmissibility of about 100 outposts scattered across the territory. Israel rejects the near-universal contention that its established settlements violate international law, but it does not formally recognize the smaller outposts, which are home to several thousand Jews.

Israeli officials said that Netanyahu, after returning from Washington on Wednesday, met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and they agreed to take down several outposts in the coming weeks.

Maoz Esther, just outside the settlement of Kochav Hashachar and northeast of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, was the first outpost to be targeted since the government took office at the end of March.

Settler leaders, reacting furiously, saw a political message.

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“This is an announcement of intentions, for the whole world to see what the United States wants Israel to do,” Avi Roeh, chairman of the local settler council, told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu’s Israeli critics on the left dismissed the demolition as a symbolic move that did not prove his willingness to act decisively against the outposts.

Many outposts have electricity, running water, paved roads and other features of settled suburban communities. The largest have several hundred residents. Some have been allowed to grow over the last two years despite court orders for the government to shut them down.

“If they really want to deal with the problem of illegal outposts, they should deal with the significant outposts,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a leader of the Peace Now organization, which monitors settlements and opposes their existence.

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Tearing down Maoz Esther, a scattered collection of two concrete structures and several cabins fashioned from metal shipping containers, is “just a public relations stunt,” he said.

But the tiny outpost refused to vanish, and its rebuilding effort raised questions about the government’s ability to enforce a wider crackdown.

Named for a settler killed in a Palestinian uprising, the outpost was first built a year and a half ago. Israel’s previous government tore it down in March of this year, but the residents rebuilt, expanding from two families to six.

“We will build this again,” said Avraham Sandak, a 29-year-old father of three. “They keep wrecking it and we keep rebuilding.”

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He stood among ruins of homes and heaps of belongings hurriedly salvaged: kitchen appliances, fans, beds, sofas, stacks of prayer books, a bottle of kosher wine, a guitar. The children’s playground slide and swing set lay in ruins.

Settler activists rushed from other parts of the West Bank to help Maoz Esther’s 40 occupants start anew.

The Youth Movement for Israel, a settler network, used cellphone text messages to mobilize volunteers and supply building materials.

Michael Ben Ari, a member of parliament with the right-wing National Union, drilled holes in plywood for a temporary shelter. Later he affixed a mezuza to the doorway. Some residents were expecting to camp there for the night.

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“Netanyahu is letting himself get carried away by the tide,” Ben Ari said.

The Israeli leader must tread cautiously. During his previous turn as prime minister, in the late 1990s, Netanyahu yielded to U.S. pressure to negotiate with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and gave up Israeli control over part of the West Bank city of Hebron, a settler stronghold. The Israeli right turned against Netanyahu and his coalition government collapsed.

“We took him down over Hebron last time,” said Baruch Marzel, a Hebron-based settler activist who turned up at the ruined outpost Thursday. “If he continues here, we’ll take him down again.”

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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