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Planned demolition in Amona will mark first test for Olmert

AMONA, West Bank—Four months after forcibly removing thousands of Israelis from the Gaza Strip, Israel is gearing up for a new showdown in the West Bank that could become a critical test for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

In the coming days, Israeli forces are expected to sweep through this illegal hillside outpost and demolish nine homes vacated by court order, marking the government's first such move since last summer's Gaza pullout. At the same time, soldiers are preparing to head into the volatile city of Hebron to evict a small group of Israeli families living in the city's deserted Palestinian market.

After watching ideological allies ousted from their Gaza Strip homes with relatively little trouble, the West Bank settlers are vowing to mount a stronger defense in a bid to halt any attempts to force even more Israelis from their disputed homes. Few Israelis claim that Gaza is part of the biblical land of Israel, but many consider the West Bank, the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, to be part of their country.

This barren, rocky hilltop and the Hebron market could become the testing grounds not only for Olmert as he takes over as prime minister from the stroke-stricken Ariel Sharon, but also for the settlement movement, which has been trying to regroup since its summer setbacks.

"We have to do whatever we can to stop this," said Hadassah Spitz, 28, a mother of three who has lived with her husband in a mobile home in Amona for seven years. "It's not just nine houses. It's the beginning of taking all of the West Bank."

Amona is one of more than an estimated 100 illegal settlements that have sprung up alongside more than 120 Israeli-sanctioned settlements strategically built across the West Bank. Under the U.S.-backed "road map," Israel is supposed to dismantle the illegal settlements as one of the first stages in establishing peace with a new Palestinian state that would include the West Bank.

So far, little progress has been made on either side in meeting the steps of the phased plan. Instead, Sharon opted to push his unilateral proposal to end Israel's military occupation of the Gaza Strip by removing the 8,000 Israelis last summer who lived in fortified settlements amid 1.3 million Palestinian residents.

Settlers who vowed to put up a fierce fight in the end showed little resistance. Sharon quickly declared victory and won international praise, even from some of his Arab neighbors, for taking the risky move.

How Sharon would proceed in the much more contentious and strategically important West Bank may never be known. The 77-year-old leader was felled by a devastating stroke last week and is unlikely to return to power, leaving Olmert to lead Israel and Sharon's new centrist party as it prepares for a critical March 28 election.

With the country and world still waiting to see if Sharon will recover, Olmert is being forced to chart his own course. How he handles the clash with Israel's own citizens could give an indication of how prepared he is to lead the nation as the possible head of a permanent government following the elections.

"It's the first real test for Olmert," said Dror Etkes, the director of Peace Now's Settlement Watch project who has been leading the successful legal campaign to take down the Amona houses. "It will become a critical test of how serious the government is about this."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, said the government has no plans to back down in the brewing battle with settlers.

"Israel takes its road map commitments very seriously," he said.

In recent days, Israeli forces have clashed with settlers at different flashpoints across the West Bank. On Wednesday, soldiers demolishing temporary structures at another illegal outpost near Bethlehem used tear gas on opponents. Last week, settlers in Hebron pelted soldiers with stones and eggs when they tried to present eviction notices to eight families that have been living in a Palestinian market for three years. The evictions, expected in the next few weeks, are expected to be especially risky since the settlers in the region are among the most confrontational in the West Bank.

On Thursday, dozens of singing settler girls temporarily blocked the entrance to Amona amid rumors that government officials were coming to prepare for the home demolitions. Trucks carrying sleeping bags and supplies for the expected showdown zipped through the quiet hilltop streets. The homes themselves sat vacant on the far edge of the hilltop.

Although the number of homes is small, settlers view the plans to topple the Amona houses as the first, dangerous step in abandoning land they view as their biblical homeland.

"In Gush Katif, we didn't succeed," said Orit Caspi, referring to the Gaza Strip settlement. The 27-year-old settler from Hebron is leading efforts to protect Amona. "This time it will be stopped."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SETTLEMENT

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