The saga known as "evacuation of the settlement outposts in the West Bank" set two new records for absurdity this week. On Monday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz came to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and showed Ariel Sharon a binder of aerial photographs. One might have assumed some secret mission across the border was being considered but Mofaz's photos documented not nuclear facilities in Iran, nor Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon - but the progress of construction of settlement outposts.
That's how it is in the IDF - the ground forces defend the outposts, and the air force is sent on photographic sorties to track their development. One wonders if they will be sending the bill for the flying hours to the Yesha Council. Sharon and Mofaz concluded the discussion with a decision to accelerate the evacuation of the "unauthorized" settlement outposts.
A few hours later, the army and police swooped down on the outpost of Mitzpe Yitzhar, south of Nablus. The television news showed police horses and soldiers struggling with the right-wing demonstrators, who had arrived in buses from many other settlements. Everyone looked determined, even the horses seemed jubilant, and the settlers were shouting.
Still, the performance was far from convincing - maybe because the same outpost had already been evacuated last year and was immediately rebuilt, or maybe because the decision to step up the pace of evacuations had been reached so many times in the past, and never been brought to fruition.
Nearly a year has gone by since the Aqaba summit, at which Sharon stood on the stage next to President Bush, Abu Mazen and King Abdullah, and promised them that Israel is a state of law, "and we will therefore immediately begin evacuation of unauthorized settlement outposts."
It has been 36 days since Dov Weisglass wrote Condoleezza Rice that Sharon and Mofaz would prepare a list of unauthorized outposts with an "indication" of their date of evacuation, and that the IDF and Israel Police would carry out a protracted evacuation based on these target dates. "The list will be presented to Ambassador Dan Kurtzer within 30 days," Weisglass wrote. Kurtzer is still waiting for it.
Peace Now's surveillance team reports that there are now approximately 100 outposts scattered around the West Bank. Sharon and Mofaz have since the start of 2004 signed 12 evacuation orders. In the meantime, four unoccupied sites have been evacuated, some of which were simply relocated or rebuilt.
Why is it so hard to evacuate the outposts? Ostensibly, there are no restrictions. Their evacuation is not conditional on Palestinian good behavior, seven days of quiet, or the war on terror, and would not generate a coalition crisis, either. The right-wing factions and the rejectionist front in the Likud have made it clear that they would be able to stomach the eviction of the caravans from the hilltops. Nevertheless, the evacuation progresses at snail's pace.
The American administration considers the foot-dragging a violation of Sharon's promise to the president, but prefers not to press too much so as to promote the bigger plan, for disengagement from the Gaza Strip. As in the days of Ehud Barak, everyone is waiting for the "big bang" of the evacuation of settlements, and turning a blind eye to the small facts that are in the meantime made in the field. But this is precisely their mistake, which the settlers are exploiting to struggle over every hilltop and caravan, and thereby deter the government.
Evacuation of the settlement outposts in the West Bank is the test of Sharon's seriousness and capability. Herein lies the difference between plans and high talk, and the difference between an internal struggle within the Likud and the coalition, on the one hand, and execution of decisions and real actions that enforce the law.
Last week, officials in Washington told Baruch Spiegel, an emissary of the minister of defense, that the snags encountered in approving the disengagement plan do not absolve Israel from fulfilling its commitments to evacuate the outposts and freeze construction in settlements. But there's no need to wait for the American pressure.
If Sharon and Mofaz truly intend to break the diplomatic impasse and offer the public new hope, as they have said they will, they can prove it in the outposts. Otherwise, it is hard to believe they will succeed in moving even a single house in even the longest-existing settlement.
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