The peace process moved fitfully along this week as Israel prepared for another round of Palestinian prisoner releases, the opening of a bypass road connecting the Gaza Strip to the West Bank, and the dismantling of 15 West Bank settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak informed Yesha Council leaders on Tuesday that the settlements would come down, according to Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the council, which represents about 200,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank. Tayar said members of her organization would now attempt to get sympathetic Knesset members to convince Barak to change his decision.
Tayar, in Manhattan for a brief visit, said Barak had not set a date for dismantling the settlements and that talks with his assistant, Yossi Vardi, were scheduled to continue.
A settler spokesman in Jerusalem, Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, said plans were being made to launch a public campaign against the decision.
An aide to Deputy Defense Minister Efraim Sneh was quoted by United Press International as saying that seven of the 15 sites did not have a permit, and that the other eight were approved by an aide to former Defense Minister Moshe Arens the day after his party lost May’s election.
Sneh’s aide said four of 15 sites are empty, one is in a military firing zone, and that another — although ostensibly within a settlement’s boundaries — is actually 2.5 miles from the actual settlement.
Tayar said that because she was here, she was unable to comment on the report. But she acknowledged that some of the settlements in question were established on hilltops at the perimeter of a legally constructed settlement.
“What we did was to jump to the farthest point in order to protect the perimeter of the community’s master plan,” she said. “This was all within the legal permission of the State of Israel. … We are not in tunnels. This was something the civil administration and the Israeli army saw. Nothing we did was done secretly but rather according to the due process of law.”
The Palestinian Authority has called for dismantling all 144 settlements in the territories and has even threatened not to continue final status talks until Barak makes such a pledge.
On Monday, Zeev Schiff, the military editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote that the legally questionable settlements were part of a strategic plan by the settlers to “deny a [future] Palestinian entity … a reasonable territorial contiguity.”
Tayar said the reason for establishing hilltop communities that are not contiguous to an establishment settlement is because “within the past plan of communities there is not always contiguous land.” She said all of the settlements were established on state land — land that is undeveloped both agriculturally and residentially.
“We have never confiscated Arab land to build a community,” she insisted.
Tayar said her organization had promised Barak that it would not reveal what was discussed during their hour-long meeting. But Israel Radio reported that Barak told them that 27 other questionable settlements would not be touched. It quoted a defense official as saying that some of the 27 were legal or would become legal and developed and that the status of the others would be “frozen.”
Another settler leader, Zeev Hever, was quoted as saying that some of the sites “are big and veteran. We shall do whatever we can to prevent” the dismantling.
Tayar added: “We are not going to sit idly by and allow any of our communities to be hurt in any way.”
Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinian residents of Gaza applied this week for “safe passage cards” that would allow them to travel on a new road linking Gaza and the West Bank. There was such heavy demand for the cards, that one Palestinian office said it was running out of forms. Israel is to review the applications and approve or reject them within two working days. The road is expected to open Sunday.
The road is designed to permit Gazans to visit relatives in the West Bank, which they maintain the Israeli government had prevented for years.
By the end of the week, Israel was expected to release 151 Palestinian prisoners in accordance with the revised Wye River accord.
The prisoners were supposed to have been released last week but the Palestinian Authority balked at reports Israel was including prisoners who were about to be released anyway. Israel Radio said a compromise had been reached that would allow the prisoner release to take place.
Despite progress in the peace process, a political leader of the militant Palestinian group Hamas warned that his group was prepared to carry out a terrorist attack at any moment. But at the same time, the group’s armed branch promised a conditional end to all attacks on civilians.
Nevertheless, Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli army chief of staff, said he had “specific and general information” about planned attacks by groups opposed to the peace process. He did not elaborate.