Peace Now Calls for Evacuating 26 Settlements

Peace Now is advocating the immediate evacuation of 26 isolated settlements in the West Bank as a follow-up to the disengagement from Gaza.

The 26 settlements were chosen based on proximity to Palestinian population centers or other factors that made their locations problematic. Their evacuation, the organization says, would enable Israel to withdraw from large portions of the West Bank and give the Palestinians control over large contiguous areas in the northern West Bank, the Hebron Hills region and the southern West Bank.

The first step toward effecting such an evacuation, the organization believes, is to convince the public that these settlements indeed constitute a problem. At a press conference in Jerusalem yesterday, movement leaders argued that the Gaza pullout was possible because most of the public was convinced that isolated Gaza settlements such as Kfar Darom and Netzarim were problematic. In the West Bank, however, the isolated settlements lack such name recognition.

Dror Etkes, who heads Peace Now's Settlement Watch program, said that the movement's top priority is evacuating the Jewish settlers in Hebron. Other settlements on the group's list include Elon Moreh, Hermesh, Yitzhar, Itamar, Tapuah, Dolev, Tekoa and Ma'aleh Amos.

Peace Now believes that the time is ripe for such an initiative because numerous public opinion surveys conducted since the disengagement show that most of the public wants to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians and most of the public is willing to evacuate settlements to achieve this goal. However, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been vague about his future plans, and the movement would like to prod him into action.

"From the developments over the past weeks and months - the upsurge in construction and infrastructure development - it is impossible to understand [Sharon's] goal," explained Etkes.

"Most of the construction is taking place in the large settlements, but on the other hand, permanent housing continues to be built in the illegal outposts, and there has been massive development of ring roads around small settlements east of the separation fence."

Once these 26 settlements are removed, the movement advocates a third unilateral withdrawal from 17 additional settlements, including Kedumim, Shavei Shomron, Ofra and Psagot. Any remaining evacuations would take place in the context of a final-status agreement.