by Ben Lynfield
(IPS) YAFIT, West Bank --
fear that grips Israelis like Avner Pinker as they drive through the West Bank is beginning to spread among settlers at the once impregnable Jewish settlement movement in the occupied territories.
"My children know that when we get to al-Ouja, it's time for them to put their heads down," he says of the nearby Arab oasis town known for its stone-throwing attacks.
Other roads have become deadly shooting traps for friends and neighbors, Pinker says.
He is weighing whether to join other settlers from the 18 settlements of the West Bank's strategic Jordan Valley area -- which abuts the border with Jordan -- who have moved away due to security concerns and economic malaise since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising last September.
A total of more than 50 out of about 600 area families have left, local authorities say.
Yafit, which has lost nine of its 34 families, and several other tiny settlements are fighting for their lives.
The flight from the Jordan Valley and from other small, secular remote outposts of the West Bank is hardly a mass exodus. It does not reflect the situation in larger settlements or an ideological shift.
But strong supporters of settlement activity acknowledge the flight as a worrisome trend, a threat to Israel's territorial claims and also a challenge to the idea that Zionism is about holding one's own and redeeming the land in a hostile environment.
"There is a difficult situation in the Jordan Valley that we will have to overcome for both Zionist and security reasons," says Michael Eitan, a member of the Knesset, who is spearheading lobbying efforts for the faltering settlements.
According to the settlements' governing body, Yesha, there are 150 settlements, housing 207,000 people. The settlements have been built since the 1967 Middle East War in contravention of international law on lands that Israel occupied during the fighting.
The areas are home to more than three million Palestinians, whose territory has been sliced up by the colonies.
Peace Now, Israel's largest peace movement, predicts the trend will spread to stronger and larger settlements.
As is often the case, Israel's government is of two minds over what to do about those settlements that are withering, with hawks in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party demanding they be infused with subsidies and accorded more army protection.
Doves point to the departures as evidence that the settlements are a costly burden.
Asked earlier this month whether settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be evacuated, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Maariv newspaper: "Yes, and I would not be doing the Palestinians a favor. There are several settlements that are drawing fire and have no future."
But Sharon, who as a Likud minister constructed many of the settlements in accordance with an expansionist ideology of a Greater Israel, is unwilling to discuss the removal of any of them.
He says he would like to bolster the Jordan Valley settlements, which number among the oldest in the West Bank, and envisions them as the nuclei of a 10-20 kilometer "security belt" that Israel will retain in perpetuity to protect it from threats to the east. That would mean grabbing about a quarter of the West Bank and precluding the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
But in Yafit, there may soon be no one left for the army to secure. In recent years, many of its residents made their living off the traffic that traversed the desert highway that cuts through the Jordan Valley and links Jerusalem to northern Israel. Last year, was supposed to be one of major growth for Yafit. A roadside restaurant was expanded, a gas station was opened and there were plans for a motel. But because of Palestinian ambushes, there is hardly any traffic on the road. The gas station has been closed and the investors backed off from the motel idea.
"Things have simply died, everything is dead. There are still a few buses but they have almost no passengers," says Tamir Shlomi, the secretary-general of Yafit.
The biggest blow came on Aug. 7, when Zohar Shurgi, a pillar of the settlement, was shot dead by Palestinians while driving home from work near Tel Aviv.
Shurgi had been one the people most committed to enduring the adversity of the Palestinian uprising and staying in Yafit. He would tell friends that he would remain there even if it was transferred to Palestinian rule. "He was a real Zionist believer and he projected strength," said Pinker. "When he died, it hit really close to home. It was frightening."
Several families packed up and left. Shurgi's wife and children moved back to the Israeli coastal city of Ashdod.
"It's very tough for the children. We used to have 30 kids in Yafit and now we have 17," says Pinker. "Their friends are gone, the house across from you is empty and the kids ask you, where has everyone gone?"
Yesha leaders say the troubles in the Jordan Valley do not detract from the overall strength of the settlement movement.
"There are a few weak places, but the overall sense is one of victory," says spokesperson Yehoshua Mor-Yosef. "The rate of growth at the settlements is down compared to last year, but the important thing is that they are still growing during a period of war."
But Peace Now believes the troubles settlers face in the Jordan Valley will also become visible in larger non-ideological settlements, which face the same problems of isolation and dangerous roadways but have thus far been less vulnerable because of their stronger economic and social base.
"It's just a matter of time before the aggregate tension breaks up these bigger places," says Mor-Yosef.
November 26, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.