by Peter Hirschberg
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
a group of settlers are preparing to rebuild Mitzpeh Yitzhar, the settler outpost on the West Bank taken down before television cameras earlier in the week.
Settlers have resumed their cat-and-mouse games with the Israeli army on hilltops to resurrect this and other outposts dismantled in recent days. The move to dismantle the outpost could have been just an act. But hardcore settlers are determined to take an equally symbolic stand against demolition.
"We will wage a battle even over a tent," Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, spokesman for the local settler movement told IPS. "Because if you take down an outpost, then you create a precedent for the uprooting of settlements."
Many of the 61 hilltop outposts that have sprung up across the West Bank without government authorization since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon took office in March 2001 are not even inhabited. The upheaval over removing them will be dwarfed by a showdown that would come if an Israeli government attempts to evacuate any of the 144 established settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
A total of 220,000 settlers now live in the West Bank and Gaza. The presence in the Gaza Strip, which does not hold the same biblical significance for religious Jews, is much smaller, numbering only 7,000 in 19 settlements.
The dispute over settlements has been raging since the first was established in 1968 -- a year after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan -- and it goes to the very heart of the battle over the future of the country as a Jewish and democratic state. If Israel clings to the territories, where over three million Palestinians live, there will be a Jewish minority ruling over an Arab majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Left-wing Israelis see the settlements as an obstacle to peace. On the moderate right, many see the settlements as a security asset, ensuring that Israel does not return to 1967 borders, which they see as dangerously narrow and not defendable.
For the settler hardcore, occupying Judea and Samaria -- the biblical names they use for the West Bank -- is a divine mission that will hasten the coming of the messiah. "The Jewish nation was born in Judea and Samaria," says Mor- Yosef. "If we don't have the right to build in Beit El and Ofra (two settlements deep inside the West Bank), then we have no right to Tel Aviv."
Palestinians point to expansion of the settlements as the root cause of the Intifada. Since the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993, the settler population has risen 80 percent.
The international community says the settlements violate international resolutions that forbid the movement of civilians to land seized in war. All Mideast peace initiatives over the last decade, including the road map, call for a freeze on settlement building.
Mor-Yosef and other settler leaders say they have been caught off-guard by the man they revered as the architect of the settlements. As housing minister in the late eighties and early nineties, Ariel Sharon spearheaded a massive construction drive in the occupied territories.
Now, Sharon could be on the verge of taking a wrecking ball to his own handiwork, or at least to some of it. But evacuating outposts is a far cry from dismantling an established settlement. Many in the Israeli left are still doubtful he will do this, but Mor-Yosef is convinced that when Sharon talks of "painful compromises" for peace, he means uprooting settlers from their homes.
Settler leaders emerged shocked and angry from a meeting with Sharon this week. Sharon told them of his commitment to the road map and to dismantling the outposts. "Sharon is confused," says Mor-Yosef. "He has grown weary."
Sharon has, at least for now, placed Israel's relationship with the United States above his commitment to the settlements. Dror Etkes, a member of Peace Now, the leading peace movement in Israel, believes Sharon will ultimately take down some established settlements. "Israel is in deep economic crisis and Sharon understands that this is the result of the occupation," he told IPS.
The word "settlement" may conjure up the image of a tiny and undeveloped community. But many of the settlements today resemble small towns, often with rows of red-roofed homes connected by tarred roads, and kitted out with an array of public buildings and services.
Ma'aleh Adumim, located just 10 minutes drive east of Jerusalem, has 25,000 inhabitants. Ariel, further to the north in the West Bank, has 19,000. There are many settlements with several thousand inhabitants.
In the years leading up to the Intifada, the settler population was growing at a rate of eight percent per year. Since the uprising erupted in September 2000, and attacks by Palestinian militants made life in the West Bank precarious, that figure is down to five percent.
Travelling along the roads of the West Bank is something of a game of Russian roulette for the settlers, who are exposed to ambushes and drive-by shootings by Palestinian militants. In the type of roadside ambush that has become typical, a settler was shot dead Friday by Palestinian gunmen near the West Bank city Ramallah. The army has now barred Palestinian vehicles from certain roads used by settlers.
A disproportionate number of settlers have been killed since the start of the Intifada. The settlers make 3 per cent of the Israeli population (five million Jews and one million Israeli Arabs), but Mor-Yosef says they account for a quarter of the Israelis killed since the fighting began. But the attacks, many settlers say, have steeled their resolve not to leave.
The Intifada has also brought more violence from settlers against Palestinians. Palestinian property has been vandalized, and in some areas settlers have prevented Palestinians from harvesting their olives. A group of settlers are on trial for trying to blow up a girls' school in East Jerusalem.
Not all settlers moved to the West Bank for religious reasons. They were drawn by the middle-class dream of an affordable house with a garden in a small community. A Peace Now survey conducted last year found that more than 70 percent of the settlers are secular Jews living close to the 1967 border, not deep inside the West Bank.
These soft-core settlers are unlikely to be at the barricades if they are forced to leave their homes as part of a future peace agreement. The same Peace Now survey found that 70 percent would be ready to accept compensation and leave.
June 18, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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