Israel fulfills key parts of deal with Palestinians; Barak government agrees to turn over more land to Arabs; Troops evict rogue settlers


JERUSALEM -- Israel fulfilled important parts of its latest bargain with the Palestinians yesterday, agreeing to turn over more land to the Arabs only hours after launching a military assault against rogue Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

Both steps marked firm progress by the Israelis, as talks on a final peace treaty between the two sides get seriously under way this week.

Israel will yield 2 percent more of the West Bank outright to Palestinian control and move to shared authority over an additional 3 percent.

The pullback, to be carried out Monday, is the second of three withdrawals agreed to between Israelis and Palestinians in September's Sharm el-Sheikh accord.

By the time the third withdrawal is carried out in January, the Palestinians will have full or partial control over 40 percent of the West Bank, an area Israel has occupied since its capture from Jordan in the 1967 war.

Palestinians had hoped to have most of the West Bank under their control by the time "final status" talks got under way, so they wouldn't have to trade concessions on issues such as statehood and the status of Jerusalem for more territory.

Still, the two actions yesterday represented a significant change from the pattern of delay that marked the previous Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They helped temper Palestinian anger over Prime Minister Ehud Barak's contention over the weekend that United Nations "land-for-peace" resolutions don't fully apply to Israel's dealings with the Palestinians.

Moving under cover of darkness, Israeli troops extinguished fires along the dirt road to Ma'on Farm near Hebron yesterday and proceeded to drag hundreds of settlers and their supporters -- many of them kicking and screaming -- off the hilltop encampment.

It was perhaps the most serious confrontation between the Israeli government and Jewish settlers since the early 1980s, when soldiers encountered violent resistance in turning a Jewish settlement on the Sinai peninsula over to Egypt.

Yesterday's evacuation drove home the point that Barak would not allow his government to be browbeaten into allowing scattered settlements that undermine the peace process.

Barak called it a "complex test of democracy and a red light on the way to anarchy."

Despite weeks of fears that the settlers' last stand at Ma'on Farm could turn ugly, the forced evacuation was accomplished without a shot being fired.

Perched atop roofs, in crawl space below ground and barricaded inside a kitchen, settlers put up a strenuous resistance without using weapons.

"Jewish blood was spilled here," yelled Shira Torr, wife of the settlement's leader, as she stood against the wall of her home, a baby cradled in her arms, with young women and girls clinging to each other on either side of her, yelling and crying.

As she was finally dragged from the house, Torr denounced one of the female soldiers pulling her out: "I sacrificed my life to come here, and don't you drag me with chewing gum in your mouth and lipstick and tell me to get out."

One of the most difficult parts of the operation was clearing out the synagogue built of planks and stones by settlers. Later, the structure was carefully dismantled, while other buildings were demolished outright.

Four hours after it began, the assault ended with settlement leader Yehosefat Torr lying limp and defeated, surrounded by a half-dozen teen-age followers, outside the house where they had barricaded themselves.

Surrounded by soldiers, they watched angrily as trucks and a bulldozer got into position to dismantle the settlement, and then they were carried off their hilltop.

Although it was free of bloodshed and caused only a few injuries, the evacuation was nevertheless a wrenching experience for Israel's military, as evidenced by the length of time it took the Barak government to order the action and the care with which it was planned and executed.

"We are trained to fight in battle against enemies, not against Jews -- either settlers or other Jews," said Maj. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, chief of the army's Central Command.

All told, more than 1,000 military and civilian personnel were involved, with numerous vehicles, an overhead helicopter and redundant roadblocks leading to the compound. Yaalon said past evacuations were studied during preparations for yesterday's action.

Noam Tibon, Israeli military commander of the Hebron area, said: "We were afraid of a situation that would lead to an escalation in which people would be hurt.

"The minute you have injuries it becomes a very serious problem in the Israeli society, and that's why it's important it be done professionally, with sensitivity but determination."

He said soldiers trained "mentally" and had exercises on complicated situations to prevent surprises.

Ma'on Farm was one of 12 settlements that the Barak government set out to dismantle several weeks ago in agreement with Israel's largest settlers' lobby. By yesterday, the other 11 had all been evacuated by the settlers' organization with military involvement.

Shimon Riklin, a leader of the young settlers' resistance movement called Next Generation, said of the Ma'on Farm evacuation: "We were pleasantly surprised. The soldiers and the policemen, especially the soldiers, behaved exceptionally, with a lot of sympathy."

Palestinians were less than enthusiastic. They have stepped up complaints in recent weeks that while the Barak government targets unapproved hilltop outposts, it is allowing substantial expansion of established settlements.

"It's not about one or two mobile homes, it's about the settlements that are eating up the land and suffocating the cities," said Nabil Amr, an adviser to Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority.

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