SHVUT RACHEL, West Bank — Israel's much-anticipated evacuation of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank got off to a rocky start Tuesday when a band of high school students blocked the first dismantling operation ordered by the government.
Singing Hebrew prayers and folk songs, the youths sat atop boulders on a dirt road leading to the hilltop outpost above this Jewish settlement and forced a flatbed truck to retreat.
"We want to show that this won't come to pass quietly," said Elnatan Ben Yakov, an 18-year-old student with wire-rim glasses and a small, brightly colored kippa.
While embarrassing to Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government in the short term, the protest was largely symbolic. Settlement leaders insisted that the plan to dismantle or relocate 12 West Bank outposts will proceed, and later Tuesday a second outpost--consisting of a solitary water tower near here--was cleared out. Settlement leaders also insisted that they are not relinquishing their claim to the land at the sites.
The initial site targeted Tuesday was no more than a metal shipping container that one settler was using to store his shovels and planting tools. Other outposts, some with inhabitants, are scheduled to be evacuated later this week and next, in what has been hailed by the Barak government as a major step to push the Middle East peace process forward.
Critics say the settlements included in the plan, however, hardly scratch the surface. Indeed, a construction boom was evident in other settlements along the West Bank road north from Jerusalem to Shvut Rachel. New houses were being built and water pipes laid.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip figure as one of the most volatile issues dividing Israel and the Palestinians as they embark on the final phase of negotiations aimed at reaching a definitive solution to decades of conflict. The Palestinians, who want to cobble the West Bank and Gaza Strip into an independent state within a year, are demanding that all settlements be closed.
Most of the international community also regards the settlements as illegal because the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying state from placing its population in occupied territory.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War. But Israeli officials have argued that Jordan's claim to the region was tenuous and that thus the Geneva Convention does not apply to these settlements.
Israel further defends its settlement policies by saying the outlying communities add to the Jewish state's security. And many Jews believe the land was granted to them by God and forms part of the biblical land of Israel.
The protesters outside Shvut Rachel insisted Tuesday that they will not resort to violence to hold on to the land. They are part of an emerging group of militant young settlers who call themselves the Next Generation. The youths are rebelling against some of the more pragmatic decisions made by their elders, veteran leaders of the settlement movement.
"As long as they know in Tel Aviv that the settlers are resisting, that's good enough for us," said one of the new leaders, Shimon Riklin, who lives in Maon, a settlement southeast of Hebron.
"Every minute we are here, we are doing God's work," added Riklin, who was seated on the roadside and surrounded by young followers. "We are telling Barak, 'Do not mess with us.' "
Rather than confront the settlement leaders head-on, Barak negotiated an agreement with the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization that represents most of the settlers, to close or move 12 settlements or outposts that have sprung up in the last year, down from an originally agreed upon 15. At least 42 settlements, some as tiny as a couple of trailers, have appeared in that time. The government allowed most to legalize their status, though it has labeled illegal the 12 outposts to be closed.
It remains unclear what control the Yesha leaders have over the younger settlers. Yesha agreed to uproot the Shvut Rachel outpost Tuesday and hired the flatbed truck and a crane to do the job. But Yesha leaders, in steady cellular phone contact with the protesters, finally scrapped the plan and said the evacuation would take place another day.
"We are not going to fight with them," said Yesha Council spokeswoman Yehudit Tayar. "We are very proud of their emotions and willingness to stand there and protest what we also would protest. We are not doing this because we want to."
Tayar said the settlers will continue to assert jurisdiction over the areas that are evacuated--a claim that would seem to undermine the agreement Barak reached with Yesha.
A spokesman for Barak said late Tuesday that the government was confident that the settlement agreement will be carried out, despite initial delays.
Settler leaders have traditionally enjoyed enormous influence with Israeli governments, and few prime ministers have been able to challenge their movement without grave political risk. However, a no-confidence motion Monday night in parliament, which was triggered by the settlement closures, won only a handful of votes.