Fear stalks settlers' promised land

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kdumim, one of the West Bank villages where Jews threaten armed resistance
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The Independent Online
"Two per cent of settlers are so frightened that if they see an Arab policeman they will shoot back," says Joseph Kapach. He is mayor of Kdumim, an Israeli settlement five miles from Nablus, the largest Palestinian city on the West Bank, from which Israeli troops will withdraw before the end of the year.

Inside their ring of sentry posts the 2,300 settlers of Kdumim, established 20 years ago, are worried. Despite their protests, the Israeli government is about to establish the beginnings of a Palestinian state on their doorstep. Mr Kapach claims the roles of the settlers and the Palestinians are being reversed: "Now the settlers are the ones under occupation."

He may be premature. Ever since the Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993, the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has given priority to protecting the 140,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza. Even after Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 worshippers in the al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron last year, Mr Rabin refused to move 400 settlers from the centre of the Palestinian city.

But Mr Kapach and other settler leaders are right in thinking the ground is shifting under their feet. Mr Rabin's inactivity is partly a calculation that it is in the government's interests to postpone a confrontation with the settlers as long as possible while getting Palestinian autonomy in place. This prevents the settlers appealing to public opinion as martyrs abandoned by their own government.

Relations between Mr Rabin and the settlers are now icy. After a meeting with the Prime Minister yesterday, one settler leader said: "I think Rabin has gone mad." Another said the settlers' restraint was being interpreted as weakness by the government.

Nobody knows how seriously to take the threats of armed resistance by settlers, all of whom carry weapons. So far their protests have failed to gather much public sympathy. Mr Rabin, after touring some of the 136 West Bank settlements last month, said they added nothing to Israeli security. He pointed out that in one isolated settlement the annual cost of proving military protection to a single settler family was $250,000 (pounds 160,000).

Professor Yiron Ezrahi of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem believes the settlers are discrediting themselves by extremism. "Nobody in Tel Aviv cares about bearded people jumping up and down on their hilltops," he said. Prof Ezrahi estimates that there are about 5,000 to 6,000 hard- core settlers, but "really violent ones number only a few hundred". The right-wing Likud party is also ambivalent about how far it wants to get involved in civil disobedience, which may turn into election-losing violence.

The Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, sounds nervous about how far he will go in resisting the Oslo agreement. One Likud MP who suggested last week that all 32 of the party's Knesset representatives (MPs) should get themselves jailed to shock the nation awake encountered a distinct lack of enthusiasm among his colleagues.

At the same time, Baruch Goldstein's tomb at Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of Hebron, is a place of pilgrimage. It would not take many settlers who want to emulate him to disrupt an accord as finely balanced as that which is likely to be signed between Israel and the PLO in Washington on 25 July. It creates, in effect, two authorities on the West Bank and a web of conflicting jurisdictions. Bypass roads are being hastily built around Nablus and the other Palestinian cities, but there are still hundreds of points of friction where militant settlers might provoke a clash.

Vicky Berglas from Karnei Shomron, six miles from Kdumim, where she is head of the political action committee, says she finds horrific the idea that her teenage daughters might be stopped on the roads by Palestinian policemen. "A lot of people here are frightened," says Mrs Berglas. She has started to carry a Browning pistol, and admits: "I have been involved in going into Arab villages and scaring the hell out of them." She adds that any armed attack on settlers will lead to them retaliating against local Palestinians.

Settlers often threaten civil war, but so far they are unsure of their strategy. They are mostly professional people who work in greater Tel Aviv as accountants, doctors and lawyers. Few actually work in the settlements, and most have a lot to lose.

The fears of the Israeli settlers at Kdumim and Karnei Shomron are exactly mirrored by Palestinians in nearby Nablus.People here say they fear Israel will put checkpoints on the road leading into the city and isolate it from the rest of the West Bank.

The most likely outcome is that Israel will abandon the more isolated settlements. The most serious conflict will come in the heavily concentrated settlements around Ariel, Immanuel, Karnei Shomron and Kdumim. The land here is also important because of its water resources.

The settlers alone cannot sabotage the PLO-Israeli accords as politically they are too weak. But as their isolation deepens settlers will become more desperate, and the desperation will probably turn to violence.