Secret West Bank settlements put squeeze on Palestinians

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THE MEN living in the 15 dirty mobile homes five miles east of Bethlehem were very secretive. "Nothing personal, but we can't talk to you," said Nocham Ojana, a wiry-haired Israeli in his mid-twenties. "We don't want you to take photographs here, though we can't stop you taking pictures from the road."

The reason for the secrecy is a new settlement being built on the West Bank, something Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, has denied. To conceal the fact, the settlement, established four months ago, has no name, but is called after the settlement of Kfar el-Dad more than a mile away.

"Our plan is to establish a horse farm there for visitors," said Shir Shai, 23, a kindergarten worker at Kfar el-Dad, where 40 Israeli settler families now live. She added that there was a plan to build a further 2,500 houses at her settlement, but the settlers were waiting for the construction of a bypass.

The new settlement lies below Herodion, a conical hill topped by a ruined palace of King Herod. Its leader comes from Kiryat Arba, a militant stronghold overlooking Hebron, but the motives of the settlers at Herodion are nationalist rather than religious. Most had broken with their ultra- orthodox families to live secular lives.

"We learnt about the new settlement two months ago," said Salah al-Tamari, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council for Bethlehem. "It is a disaster for us. The new bypass will slice through our villages and prevent shepherds taking their flocks to grazing lands, as they have done for a thousand years. The overall level of settlement activity is astonishing."

Officially 350,000 Israelis now live in the land conquered by Israel in 1967, of which 170,000 have their homes in the West Bank and Gaza, and the rest in east Jerusalem.

Mr Netanyahu has played down the increase in West Bank settlement activity since he came to office. But every settlement looks like a construction site and a drive through the area shows the landscape changing by the week.

These settlements will guarantee Israel's continued occupation of much of the West Bank more effectively than any agreement between President Bill Clinton, Mr Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, at the summit that begins today in Maryland.

Yossi Sarid, the leader of the left-wing Meretz party in the Israeli Knesset, failed twice this summer to extract figures about settlement expansion from Yitzhak Mordechai, the Defence Minister. "Either the increased construction in the West Bank proceeds with your approval," he said, "and that would be bad, or it proceeds without your approval and you cover it up and keep quiet, and that is much worse."

Palestinians living near Kfar el-Dad have no doubt about the intensity of the land war. Abdullah Mahmoud Zir, a 72-year- old Palestinian who lives opposite the new Israeli settlement, said: "The army is threatening to demolish an extension I built to my house."

It is not an empty threat. On the road from Bethlehem a Palestinian cabbage farmer is living in a khaki-coloured tent beside the crushed remains of his mobile home, destroyed by an Israeli bulldozer earlier in the summer.

David Edri, 26, a motorcycle policeman in Jerusalem, who moved with his family from Bat Yam south of Tel Aviv to Kfar el-Dad a year ago, says he moved for "some ideological reasons and a lot of economic reasons".

He says he likes living in a land where Abrahamonce walked, but his main motive was that "the price of a house with a garden at Kfar el-Dad is $70,000. The same property would cost you $500,000 in Jerusalem, which is only a 20-minute drive from here."

Mr Edri denies that the settlers wanted any conflict with the Palestinians. "We are not like the settlers in Hebron. We don't want any confrontation with the Palestinians." But when asked whom he supported in the 1996 general election Mr Edri replied: "I am not ashamed. I voted for Moledet" - an extreme right party thatadvocates the expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank.

The squeeze on Palestinians around Bethlehem is becoming tighter. Mr Tamari, who lives in a village near Herodion, said: "We do not have room for a playground for our children ... we have no land to build on."

Just south of Bethlehem, the Palestinian village of Wadi Rahal has been surrounded by the fast-growing settlement of Efrat. "Soon we will only be able to get in and out by helicopter," said one local resident.

The growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank has been far more rapid than the rest of the world - and most Israelis - realise. Even if Mr Netanyahu agrees at this week's summit to expanding the Palestinian enclaves, they will be fenced in by strategically placed settlements. Mr Edri said: "It is not possible for Israelis and Palestinians to live together."

But the settlements lock the two peoples into confrontation by making permanent the points of friction between them. Mr Tamari said: "The ingredients for an explosion are all there, but nobody can tell what spark will make it explode."