Fear uproots the settlers: Israeli dreams crumble on West Bank

ON A hilltop in the northern West Bank a brand new city sparkles in the sunlight, and a proud mayor beams with pleasure as he points out his newly built 'centre for the performing arts'. Ron Nachman, creator of Ariel, is a Jewish settler. But, he says, he has 'no horns, no God and no gun'.

The ideology of Ariel, with a population of more than 11,000, is civic pride, says its master- builder. Instead of shooting at the Arabs like more militant settlers, Mr Nachman just waves his wand, bulldozes their land and they go away. The settlement's residents are ordinary Israelis who want 'quality of life'. They believe in coexistence, he says at the wheel of his bullet- proof car.

In the streets below, however, the people are scared. Aviva Dadon, a mother of three, is talking of leaving. Most of the mothers who come to her baby- clothes store feel the same, she says. If they had anywhere to go, many would leave, but most cannot afford to move and no compensation is on offer. 'Most people are very afraid. A few have left already. They don't feel safe. We dare not travel on the roads.'

The mayor dreams on, but even he cannot ignore the rows of empty new houses on an unfinished road or the empty tourist hotel and the rising unemployment. His crazed ebullience only highlights the sense of panic all around him.

The evening after the Hebron massare, Zipora Sasson, a 33-year-old pregnant mother, was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen on her way home to Ariel on the main road from Tel Aviv. On Wednesday, David Baruch, another Ariel resident, was shot dead on the same road by trigger-happy Israeli soldiers manning a road-block, who apparently mistook him for a Palestinian.

The Hebron massacre has opened up deep divisions within the 130,000-strong settler community, leaving the entire movement badly weakened. It has only strengthened the determination of the militants to stay put and fight Mr Rabin's plans for Palestinian autonomy. But the secular settlers, and many of the religious ones, have seen the writing on the wall. Tarred with killer Baruch Goldstein's brush, they can no longer count on support inside Israel proper, still less among their financial backers in the West. The fear hovering over Ariel may be a good sign for the peace process. These settlers may not have to be pushed; they may go of their own accord.

Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories are a hybrid tribe. At one end of the spectrum are the likes of Goldstein, the militant immigrant from Brooklyn who, already driven by racist dogma learned on American streets, exploited the 'law of return', which allows any Jew to come to Israel, and set off to terrorise Arabs and reclaim the land.

At the other end is Aviva Dadon, who moved to Ariel 10 years ago from Tel Aviv because the mayor told her she could buy a cheaper home, enjoy the scenery and join the Ariel choir. In between are many variations, including the kibbutzniks who settled in the Jordan Valley as farming frontiersmen, growing flowers for Marks & Spencer.

All, however, have been used as political instruments by successive governments in a policy aimed at repressing the Palestinian population and securing Israeli territorial expansion. Immediately after the 1967 Six Day War came the first wave of religious settlers, whose activities were approved by the secular leaders of the then Labour government, as long as they could be justified for 'security reasons' and were away from main centres of Arab population. The settlements of the Jordan Valley, around Jerusalem, on the Golan and in Gaza were meant to stretch the 'green line' marking out the new limits of Israeli sovreignty.

From this early drive grew the powerful Gush Emmunim (block of the faithful) movement, which galvanised mass settlement of all of 'greater Israel', advocating coexistence with the Arab population under overall Israeli rule.

Later came the ultra-militant Kahane settlers, who followed the racist thinking of Rabbi Meir Kahane, advocating 'transfer', or forcible removal, of all Arabs from the occupied territories. Goldstein was a Kahane follower, as are some 1,500 other settlers.

The 'quality of life' settler ideology came into its own under the Likud government that came to power in 1977. Settlement was specifically targeted at areas of Palestinian population, with the purpose of using Jewish building to block any future hopes of a viable Palestinian entity. Vast areas have been virtually annexed - so-called 'facts on the ground'.

To fill these settlements, the Likud government lured secular Israelis with cheap mortgages, free television licences and other incentives. Today at least 60 per cent of the occupied territories is settlement land. More than 50 per cent of settlers are estimated to be secular. In the peace talks the Palestinians demand all this land back, and the removal of every settler.

In a gesture of good intent towards the peace process when he was elected in 1992, Mr Rabin curbed new settlement building near Arab population centres, or where annexation was clearly impossible, such as Hebron. He has remained guarded, however, about exactly how many settlements he may one day be prepared to uproot, and about how much land he may give back to a future Palestinian government. Mr Rabin has been loath to offer compensation to lure settlers out, for fear of giving up his bricks-and-mortar negotiating chips. Meanwhile, all around Jerusalem and along the West Bank boundary with Israel he continues to expand settlement at a rapid pace, indicating that these areas at least will remain forever Israel.

If the peace process is to continue, however, the future of settlements must be discussed. And if any kind of stunted Palestinian entity is to be created, the settlements that are clearly doomed are those deep inside the West Bank and Gaza, where hopes of coexistence have been exposed as nothing but grotesque fantasy. Among these settlements, an estimated 70 per cent of people would leave if offered compensation. The mood in Ariel suggests that, thanks to the massacre, fear may be enough to start the exodus. More than 500 West Bank settlers called a new hotline last week to discuss plans to move.

In centres of militancy such as Hebron, the settlers will be removed only by force. But farther north, Palestinians may soon by dancing in the centre for performing arts.

(Photograph omitted)

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