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Outposts out of control

Tactics revive debate in Israel

YITZHAR, West Bank – A new dynamic has emerged in the West Bank: Jewish settlers block roads, burn tires or set fire to Palestinian fields when troops try to dismantle unauthorized settlements.

Activists call the tactic “price tag.” They hope the havoc will deter Israeli security forces from removing any of the dozens of squatter camps, or outposts, dotting West Bank hills.

Coupled with recent settler reprisal raids on Palestinian villages and a pipe bomb attack that wounded a prominent critic of settlers, the outpost battle has revived debate about the dangers posed by ultra-nationalists.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Sunday that an “evil wind of extremism” threatens Israel’s democracy. He complained that extremists undermine “the ability of those in charge in Israel to make decisions.”

Despite Sunday’s forceful words, Olmert and his predecessors failed to live up to a 2003 promise to the United States to remove dozens of outposts. Critics of the government also say Israeli police and military often ignore settler violence.

“The radical extremists in the right-wing camp understand that the government is just too afraid to confront them,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, leader of the settlement watchdog group Peace Now.

The nearly 300,000 West Bank settlers are a heterogeneous group. They range from suburbanites in settlements near Israel, who moved to the West Bank for cheaper housing, to ideologues and radical “hilltop youth” who believe Israel must keep the territory for religious and security reasons.

The ideological settlers feel betrayed by Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza, including the evacuation of an estimated 8,500 settlers, and are determined to prevent a repeat in the West Bank.

Hard-liners have been gaining ground against more pragmatic leaders of the settlers’ umbrella group, the Yesha Council, which has been negotiating with the government over the fate of the outposts. Two large regional councils, Samaria and Binyamin in the northern West Bank, last year elected leaders who oppose any compromise.

Settler leaders say the “price tag” campaign started as a grass-roots effort several weeks ago, both to protect outposts and send a message to leaders to not even consider a West Bank pullout.

Activist Daniella Weiss and regional settler leader Yitzhak Shadmi said it includes blocking roads and demonstratively entering Arab villages. “If this makes the security forces crazy, so be it,” said Shadmi, a lieutenant colonel in the army reserves.

Both drew the line at attacking Palestinians or their property, but said they wouldn’t dissuade others who advocate more extreme action.

Noam Federman, a well-known radical settler from the southern West Bank, said the tactic has been used at least four times so far, most recently on Sept. 18, after the removal of a small outpost, Yad Yair.

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