Hilla Medalia
July 21, 2009 - 12:00am

The Israel Defense Forces said on Tuesday that it had received no orders from the political echelons for a lightning evacuation of West Bank outposts, and denied having begun preparatory operations for such a move.

Amid the increased tension between the United States and Israel surrounding construction in the settlements, Haaretz learned that the Israel Defense Forces was drafting a plan to evacuate 23 illegal outposts in one day.

"The IDF is subordinate to the political echelon and implements its instructions, but such an order was never received," the IDF Spokesman's Office said in a statement.

The army was also said to be conducting preparations to forcibly evacuate the outposts in plan formulated by the security establishment, with the knowledge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The statement on Tuesday, however, described the drills in question as preparation for daily confrontations in the West Bank, and not designed to contend with imminent outpost evacuations.

In talks with the United States, Israel had said it would clear out 23 outposts built after March 2001 that it had told the George W. Bush administration it would evacuate five years ago.

So far as is known, a timetable has not been set for the evacuations.

Police on Monday evacuated three illegal structures in various outposts. In response, settlers torched Palestinian olive groves, threw stones at Palestinian cars and blocked roads around the West Bank.

Two Palestinians were lightly hurt, as were a soldier and a settler. Five settlers were arrested.

The first joint exercise to prepare for the large-scale evacuation was carried out last week. It involved the Border Police, the police and the IDF.

The drill, led by the Border Police, was held at a military base more than a week ago, with police and IDF participation. Senior officers, including the IDF's West Bank commander Noam Tibon, watched the drill.

The forces practiced handling mass riots and evacuating settlers entrenched in an outpost.

Police sources told Haaretz, "The difference between this drill and former ones is the extent of the forces that took part and the participation of the IDF and police along with Border Police."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has promised to clear out these 23 outposts, but said it was a matter of law enforcement and was not addressed in talks with the Americans over freezing settlement construction.

In practice, though, the political leaders know that evacuating the outposts meets U.S. demands, and that it will ultimately be part of a final deal. Associates of Barak say they sense the parties are close to an understanding, and that the first step will be evacuating the outposts. However, these statements were made before the crisis erupted over construction in East Jerusalem.

The IDF will try to keep its evacuation preparations, particularly dates, as foggy as possible. IDF leaders realize many soldiers identify with the settlers, and could potentially leak the plans to evacuation opponents. Therefore, as few people as possible will be let in on the plans.

While the IDF and the police managed to surprise settlers in December when they evacuated a house in Hebron, it will be more difficult this time around, because many more sites are slated for evacuation, and a large number of forces will have to be involved.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has said several times that he prefers the IDF not be on the front lines of evacuating outposts, and that police units specializing in crowd control should do the job.


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