KOKHAV HASHAHAR, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli police broke up an unauthorized settler outpost in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, bulldozing makeshift cabins, police said.
About 40 members of paramilitary border police evacuated five settler families from a hilltop camp called Maoz Esther where they were living in wooden huts with sheet metal roofs.
The camp was about 300 meters from the Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, northeast of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
About three dozen settler adults and children were in the middle of a Torah lesson when the police arrived, they said. They were allowed to finish and then left as ordered.
The evacuation was carried out a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from talks with U.S. President Barack Obama, who urged a halt to construction of settlements in order to revive stalled peace talks.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday told Jewish settler leaders that illegal outposts had to go. A statement quoted him as saying Israel “cannot compromise over enforcing the law.”
But Yariv Oppenheimer of the Peace Now movement said the evacuation was “just a public relations stunt” and added that “if they really want to deal with the problem of illegal outposts they should deal with the significant outposts.”
Half a million Jews live in the 100 “authorized” settlements built on West Bank land Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war, including Arab East Jerusalem.
The World Court says they are illegal. The United States and Europe Union agree and regard them as obstacles to peace.
Israel disputes this but acknowledges at least two dozen enclaves were built in recent years without approval. Israeli leaders have pledged for years to remove them, as promised under a U.S.-backed peace “road map” that sets the goal of an Arab peace with Israel and a Palestinian state alongside it.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said the government wanted the outposts “taken down through a process of dialogue.” He could not say how long the process might take.
But Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman denied the West Bank settlements obstruct a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“I always hear people trying to portray Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria as an obstacle to peace ... I ask, what was before 1967 when there wasn’t a single Jewish settlement ... but there was no peace either,” he told reporters in Tel Aviv
Palestinians say the settlements, and the “security” barrier the Israel army builds around them, mean confiscation of land. But settlers say Jews have a biblical right to the West Bank.
“We will build this again,” said Maoz Esther settler Avraham Sandak, a 29-year-old father of three. “They keep wrecking it and we keep rebuilding.”
“Even if some of our brothers don’t understand that and face great pressure from the Americans and Europeans, that doesn’t bother us. We will continue on our path,” he added. “If we left then the Arabs would say they want Tel Aviv.
Writing by Douglas Hamilton and Allyn Fish-Ilan; Editing by Matthew Jones