In their weekly meeting on Sunday, ministers discussed a highly critical report that blamed the government for helping set up and expand 105 settlements in the past decade.

According to the road map peace plan backed by the EU, the US, the UN and Russia, Israel must remove all the settlements created since March 2001 - 24 of them according to the report.

 

Seventy-one settlements were built before that date, and in 10 cases it is not clear when they were set up.

The report on the settlements, commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, implicated government officials in the creation of 105 such enclaves.

 

The study outlined how the settlements were created. A temporary structure would appear on a hilltop, and then government agencies would build roads, lay electricity lines and post soldiers as guards without the formal cabinet approval required for a new settlement.

 

"The government reiterated its commitment to take down the 24 outposts established since March 2001," said Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon of the Labour Party, but added that no timetable had been approved.

Settler anger

 

Ramon said six settlements whose removal has been approved by the courts should be taken down now.

Ministers from Sharon's Likud Party said removal would have to await completion of a larger project - evacuation of all 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank in the summer.

 

"Even if we think these outposts are illegal and shouldn't be there, we still have to ask when do we do this. Try to imagine the picture if the police and army take those 24 outposts now, with the confrontations we already have"

Dan Naveh,
Israeli health minister

The plan has stirred intense opposition from settlers and their backers, including key members of Likud, with some threatening violent resistance.

On the few occasions soldiers have removed small West Bank settlements, thousands of settlers have tried to block them, setting off clashes.

Health Minister Dan Naveh told Israel TV that the settlement removal must be put off.

 

"Even if we think these outposts are illegal and shouldn't be there, we still have to ask when do we do this," he said.

 

"Try to imagine the picture if the police and army take those 24 outposts now, with the confrontations we already have."

Palestinian state

 

Palestinians charge that the tiny outposts are the seeds of full-scale settlements meant to carve up the West Bank into cantons and prevent them from creating a state.

 

Palestinians demand removal of all the settlements, new and old.

The report was commissioned by
Sharon's office

Israel will send additional troops into Gaza to evacuate the settlements, security officials said, after the defence minister condensed the planned evacuation from three months
to one to limit resistance.

 

Settlers, however, are already preparing their last stand, hoarding vital supplies.

"We are making sure we will have water and generators, along with essentials such as rice, pasta, and even baby formula and diapers," said Datia Yitzhaki, one of the settler organisers.

There are around 400,000 Israeli settlers currently living on illegally occupied Palestinian land captured by the Israeli army during the 1967 war.

Israeli withdrawal

 

Meanwhile, Israeli and Palestinian ministers will meet on Monday to resume deadlocked talks over a promised Israeli handover of West Bank cities.  
   

Talks on the handover of the cities broke down last week over an Israeli demand to maintain a roadblock that Palestinians want dismantled outside Jericho.
   

But a senior Palestinian official said new talks were scheduled for Monday between Palestinian Interior Minister Nasir Yusuf and Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz.
   

Separate talks are to be held on freeing Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, the Palestinian official said. 

 

Sharon and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas declared a ceasefire at an 8 February peace summit, but Israel delayed implementing promises to withdraw from five West Bank cities and free 900 prisoners after a bomb attack two weeks later in Tel Aviv.