JERUSALEM -- Israeli authorities began evacuating an outpost in the West Bank on Tuesday after the country's Supreme Court recently held the government to its promise to remove five houses from the Ulpana hill outpost, built on privately owned Palestinian lands in violation of Israeli law.
After holding morning prayers together, residents took their children to school and began packing quietly, helped by staff provided by the Defense Ministry. The settlers were to be moved to a temporary site on a military base two miles away, where mobile homes provided by the government have been set up. Around half of the 33 families to be relocated were moving Tuesday, and the eviction of the disputed buildings is expected to be completed by the end of the week.
The empty homes will be sealed off and the government may ask the Supreme Court for a three-month extension to allow for their physical relocation.
Anxious to avoid scenes of violence and clashes between settlers and security personnel that might harm both settlers and government, the two sides reached an agreement: The government promised no police or army and the settlers promised a peaceful move with no children on the scene. Young right-wing activists who set up camp on the site in recent weeks with intentions of clashing with authorities were sent away.
"We are not leaving willingly. We are forced out of our homes against our will but there will be no violence," Racheli Kramer, a resident of six years, told Israeli media.
"We are hurt, angry and want to cry out against the terrible injustice done to us," she said, adding that people may expect violence, but the residents "won't play this game."
Live broadcasts of the move from Israeli news sites showed residents in black T-shirts bearing the slogan "Givat Ulpana, we shall return." A few families, including that of Yoel Fattal, intended to protest nonviolently. "I won't leave on my own two feet. Let them carry me out," he told media.
Although no violence was expected on the part of Israeli security authorities or residents, some remain concerned of reprisal from settlement sympathizers. In a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday, a group of human rights organizations called on Israel security services to take extra precautions and be adequately prepared to protect Palestinians from possible so-called price-tag operations by pro-settlement activists seeking to extract a price for the move.
Halfway through the day, things remained calm.
After failing to find a legal way to prevent the evacuation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the government would uphold the law and implement the Supreme Court ruling that held the government to its pledge to remove the houses by the end of the month. He also promised to build 300 new apartments in the nearby settlement of Beit El, as well as more elsewhere in the West Bank, in compensation and to strengthen the settlement movement.
Moshe Rosenboim, head of the local council of the Beit El settlement, said that despite the residents' sorrow, the promise of considerable construction provides some optimism. Slamming left-wing organizations that helped Palestinians petition Israeli courts -- in this case, Yesh Din -- Rosenboim said they must understand that "reality in Judea and Samaria is irreversible ... nothing can stop the return of the Jewish people to their land." Judea and Samaria are the Biblical names for the area.
Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now, whose organization is behind a petition expected to lead to the removal of another outpost, Migron, said in response that the group's agenda was for "Israel to end the occupation and separate from the Palestinians into two states" but that settlers were doing everything to make this solution "unrealistic."
After meeting with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Jerusalem, Netanyahu stressed the need for Israelis and Palestinians to talk.
"The key to peace is complex but in the end it is very simple: Either [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas must come here or I must go to him and I am willing for either," Netanyahu said, asking Putin to convey the message during his visit to Bethlehem and meeting with Abbas on Tuesday.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Raheli Sadok, center, tries to get her family's possessions together as movers sent by the Israeli Defense Ministry carry out the voluntary evacuation from the Ulpana outpost Tuesday. Credit: Jim Hollander / European Pressphoto Agency