Israel will tell President Bush during his visit this week that it is committed to "expeditiously" evacuating unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, a spokesman for Israel's premier said Monday.
Bush has said he expects Israel to comply with its 5-year-old pledge to take down the outposts, tiny encampments seen by the Palestinians as a major impediment to a peace deal. Bush arrives Wednesday on a three-day mission to push for progress in recently restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Most of the outposts consist of a few trailers on West Bank hilltops, put up by hard-line Israeli settlers to prevent creation of a Palestinian state. The Israeli Peace Now movement counts more than 100 such outposts, but the "road map" peace plan commits Israel to removing only the two dozen established after March 2002.
The first phase of the plan, which was never implemented, requires Israel to stop all settlement construction and remove outposts, while the Palestinians dismantle groups that attack Israelis. In later phases, the sides are supposed to tackle core issues like final borders, a solution for Palestinian refugees and sovereignty in Jerusalem.
One of the outposts on the removal list is Migron, which has permanent housing for 40 families, a synagogue, a ritual bath and a nursery school. Settlers acknowledge at least part of the outpost is on privately owned land seized from Palestinians.
Protest at one settlement
On Monday, about 100 anti-settlement protesters gathered across from Migron, north of Jerusalem, on a hill overlooking a main highway through the West Bank.
"Evacuate these people," peace activist Mossi Raz appealed to the government over a loudspeaker. "They are here ... only to block a final agreement with the Palestinians."
Settlers believe the West Bank belongs to the Jews. They reject the premise of the peace negotiations, that the end result will be a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Danny Dayan, a settler leader, said he saw "no reason for Israel" to dismantle outposts, saying it was "obscene" for the road map to call for the removal of outposts and a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism in the same breath.
In recent months, the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has taken tougher action against West Bank militants.
The Haaretz newspaper, citing an Israeli security agency report, said Monday that Palestinian security forces arrested more than 250 Hamas militants in the West Bank over the past month. The Islamic group, which controls Gaza and is a rival to Abbas' Fatah, is sworn to Israel's destruction and has scheduled demonstrations against Bush's mission.
Ahead of Bush's visit, Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams met Monday. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was scheduled to host a meeting with Abbas on Tuesday.
Olmert spokesman sees shift
Israel first pledged to remove West Bank outposts in 2003, but did little. However, Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said conditions have changed since Israel and the Palestinians relaunched peace talks at Bush's international conference in Annapolis, Md., in November.
"What is new in the post-Annapolis process is that there isn't an expectation that Israel alone will implement its obligations under the road map in a vacuum," Regev said, "rather, the expectation is that both sides will in parallel move forward in implementing their obligations."
Olmert, he added, "is committed to acting expeditiously on this matter." He gave no timetable.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped Olmert would follow through.
"I hope that he will dismantle the outposts ... so that we can make 2008 a year of peace and treaty," Erekat said. "We'll judge it once we see it."
Violence persisted Monday in Gaza. Israeli troops shot and killed two armed Palestinians who approached the border with Israel in northern Gaza, including one carrying an explosive device, the military said. The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed one was a female militant who blew herself up.
The Israeli military released surveillance footage that showed a man and woman holding hands as they approached the fence, and the man opening fire. Israeli forces shot back and hit him, and then the woman picked up his rifle and fired. She, too, was hit.
Israeli defense officials said military commanders have been ordered to scale back operations against Gaza militants while Bush is in the region. Last week, Israel stepped up its offensive after militants fired a Katyusha rocket at an Israeli city from Gaza.
And Olmert told his party Monday that Israel is at war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and "this will continue without restraint everywhere, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."