Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - As fears of a violent outbreak against Jewish communities in the disputed West Bank grow, the Israeli army has confirmed it is equipping Israeli residents there with anti-riot equipment to help them quell a Palestinian "mass action" aimed at claiming the territory.
Reports that Prime Minister Ehud Barak intends to relinquish up to 95 per cent of the area Israelis call Judea and Samaria to the Palestinian Authority have fuelled the concerns of Jewish residents that many of their communities will be left isolated and vulnerable to assault.
Dozens of settlers have been murdered in terror attacks in the years since Israel began releasing areas of the West Bank to PA control as part of the U.S.-sponsored Oslo Accords.
"We're always expecting they will be attacked," a senior Israeli army officer said in an interview. "We're trying to hear what the Palestinians are saying. We hear their threats [and see] the influence of violence in their education and the fierce hatred in their newspapers."
"Knowing that the Palestinians use violence, [we're taking] measures to defend ourselves and defend our citizens," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The 200,000 Israeli settlers living in the disputed areas are currently protected by the Israeli army. Within the settlements, there are also security teams comprising residents, and approved by the army.
Usually equipped with regular weapons and ammunition to protect against terror attacks, they will now likely be issued riot-control gear, including rubber-coated bullets and teargas canisters.
PA officials have warned that masses of unarmed Palestinians will converge on the settlements after statehood has been declared.
The PA's Jerusalem Affairs Minister, Faisal Husseini, predicted recently that the day after the PA declares independence, Palestinians will march on all of the areas which Israel captured from Jordanian control in 1967, including eastern Jerusalem.
In Palestinian populated centers already under PA civilian control but where Israel continues to maintain overall security responsibility, violence is also expected to increase.
"We've seen rioting in the last month," the senior officer said. "We expect to see riots and violence in the coming months."
"We do anything [we can] to keep the area quiet and [keep] friction down," the officer said. "But we know the PA uses violence to reach political goals."
A number of the settlements are built on land which was purchased by Jewish philanthropists in the area before the State of Israel was founded. As Israeli statehood in 1948 approached, many of the original settlers were killed or driven from their lands by marauding Arabs and the communities were destroyed.
Between 1948 and 1967, Judea and Samaria were occupied by Jordan. When Israel captured the areas in 1967, those destroyed communities were rebuilt and new ones added. They range in size from more than 10,000 residents to a few families.
Until recently, every Israeli government supported Jewish settlement in the area, much more so than the coastal areas where most Israeli population centers are now located.
Less than a year ago, Barak pledged that most of those settlements would remain in blocs under Israeli sovereignty. But it now appears he is willing to transfer more than a quarter of the Jewish population from those areas, or leave them under PA rule.
The PA says it will declare an independent state comprising the entire West Bank around the time of the September 13 deadline for reaching a negotiated settlement with Israel - whether or not an actual agreement has been reached.