Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Tuesday he would activate all legal means to accelerate the removal of unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank, which he said were "disgracing" Israel's image around the world.
"We held wide-ranging talks on the issue of clearing outposts," Peretz told reporters at the conclusion of a visit to the IDF's Central Command north of Jerusalem. "I think that the State of Israel must adhere to its laws, and this will be done as soon as possible."
"This issue also has international and diplomatic implications. It is also for the good of the illegal resident, it does not give him honor, nor does it honor the general public," Peretz told reporters.
Peretz was accompanied by Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and Maj.-Gen. Yair Naveh during his first visit to Central Command as defense minister. He inspected a traditional honor guard and was briefed for two hours on the daily challenges faced by the Central Command, whose West Bank jurisdiction covers areas where Jewish settlements border a large Palestinian population.
Peretz's comments came after news agencies reported Sunday that Naveh had recently signed expansion orders for three West Bank settlements at the request of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The approval for expanding the three settlements had been initially authorized by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz. On Sunday, a spokesman for Peretz said the Defense Ministry was currently "reexamining" the approvals made under the previous administration.
During his visit, Peretz commended the Central Command's crucial role in the fight against terror - including preventing attacks perpetrated by Jewish extremists - saying, "We will not tolerate a situation where Israeli citizens attack Palestinians and their children and disgrace the name of Israel." He also announced the reopening of the Karni goods crossing for trading in both directions and other plans aimed to alleviate economic distress among innocent Palestinian civilians.
"We will also open crossings in the West Bank and expand the number of Palestinian workers allowed leave to work inside of Israel," he said.
He praised the officers assembled for their professionalism and recent operational successes. "The success of the Central Command in cooperation with the police and the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] bring operational results that deserve admiration, such as the successful arrest last night of Ibrahim Hamed," the defense minister said.
Meanwhile, several hundred anti-convergence plan protesters held black umbrellas in front of the US Consulate in Jerusalem and set ablaze a large Star of David on a hilltop outside the Ma'aleh Rehavam outpost in Judea Tuesday.
Both protests were timed to coincide with Olmert's first meeting with US President George W. Bush since taking office. Protesters said they expected Olmert to discuss the convergence plan with Bush.
"We want to tell Bush that the person who comes to you betrays the state of Israel," said Tsafrir Ronen, an activist for the Movement for Greater Israel, which helped organize the Jerusalem rally.
Outside of Ma'aleh Rehavam, protesters of all ages - from babies to an 80-year-old resident of Efrat - walked from nearby Kfar Eldad to the outpost. They said they were making a statement not just to Olmert but also to Peretz, who on Tuesday said he planned to start evacuating outposts.
But while the outpost perched among the hilltops outside of Nokdim might look isolated, right-wing activist and former MK Elyakim Haetzni said that he and close to 100 others had come to let people know the settlement was integral to the continuity of the state of Israel.
Haetzni said he didn't want people to think that the Jewish enterprise in Judea and Samaria had been destroyed. He added that the hatred toward the settlers was an internalized form of anti-Semitism.
In a letter that he addressed to Bush, Haetzni said: "Ehud Olmert is asking you to support him in his plan that could bring about the destruction of the state of Israel. In the foreseeable future it could cause civil unrest and even civil war."
Leah Wolf said she came to Ma'aleh Rehavam from the community of Metar outside of Beersheba to let Israeli leaders know that the outposts had the support of people throughout Israel.
Over time, she said, she had been to many demonstrations and even had a photograph in her cellphone of the one held in Kfar Maimon last summer to protest the pullout from Gaza.
A resident of Ma'aleh Rehavam, Limor Halamesh, said she was encouraged by the protest. She and others at the outpost told the demonstrators that their doors were open to them.
"It shows that people feel that our homes belong to everyone," said Halamesh.