An Israeli cabinet committee today gave Prime Minister Ehud Barak a free hand to close Jewish outposts that have sprung up in the West Bank in defiance of the law in recent years.

It remained unclear how many of the 42 new Jewish settlements with their 540 structures would survive Barak's decision, which is expected in the coming days or weeks.

But the fact that the outposts may be forcibly evacuated, including some that are no more than a few mobile homes parked on a remote hilltop, represents a rare setback for the settler movement, according to the anti-settlement group Peace Now.

"The settlers for so many years were given free rein and really substantial economic subsidies," said Didi Remez, spokesman for Peace Now. "So any setback and any curbing of the settlement drive is something very important, and it's a first."

The Palestinians, who hope to establish a state on the West Bank in the next year, say that all 160 or so long-standing Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal and must be removed. They also have expressed sharp opposition to the Israeli government's policy--unchanged in Barak's three months in office--of expanding existing settlements.

Since Barak took power in early July, the construction of nearly 2,600 new housing units in the West Bank has been approved, a figure that represents an acceleration from the rate of approvals under the previous government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

In today's meeting of the Israeli government's ministerial committee on settlements, the first since Barak took office, no action was taken to dampen the pace of expansion of long-standing settlements in the West Bank. But the committee did leave it to Barak to decide the fate of newer outposts, most of which have sprung up since the signing of the Wye River accord in Maryland a year ago. After the signing, then foreign minister Ariel Sharon urged Jewish settlers to hurry to "grab" hilltops, and create "facts on the ground"--before Palestinians claimed the land.

An Israeli army report said seven of the new settlements were wholly illegal, 28 had received only partial approvals after they had been established and another seven had received full approval.

The timing and number of settlements to be closed remains unknown. Barak has said his criteria will include the date of their establishment, their location and security situation and the extent of illegal building on the site.

The likelihood is that if any of the settlements are to be closed, Barak will act swiftly and without public notice so as not to give the settlers a chance to organize opposition.