Heat goes out of settlers' protest challenge withers on vine

Magen Dan is a summer camp that thinks it's a settlement. You won't find it on a map of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but it is about half a mile down the Samarian foothills from Elkana, a prosperous settler township of high walls and designer villas overlooking Tel Aviv. From the community, founded 18 years ago, the bread-winners of 1,000 Jewish families commute to their careers.

If the right-wing nationalists who established Magen Dan this week were trying to provoke a trial of strength with the government, which has barred settlement expansion for the duration of the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, they must be sadly disappointed. August, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis holidaying abroad, is the cruellest month for protest.

The Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has instructed his security services to let the illegal settlers "wither on the vine". They seem to be doing just that.

About 400 latter-day pioneers pitched their tents on Tuesday night. By Wednesday, they were down to 200. A day later, there were barely 40 during working hours, most of them children under 15. Last night only 100 had ordered the Sabbath-eve dinner offered by a local caterer.

It was not for want of trying. The settlers lugged half a dozen black Bedouin-style marquees on to the rocky hillside, with its stunted trees.

Two generators supply electricity. Elkana's municipal fire- engine shakes and stumbles up and down a rutted track to refill two water tanks hauled in on the back of a tender.

There are plastic lavatory cabins, one for men, one for women. Child optimists have planted saplings around the tinder-dry site. Young men are building two rudimentary "houses" of breeze blocks and cement, carried on their backs for the last 100 yards.

A jeep-load of soldiers, the only token of official attention, now stop vehicles from approaching any closer.

Magen Dan means "Shield of Dan", the official name for Greater Tel Aviv. The settler tents are labelled with the names of its towns and suburbs. Israeli flags flutter everywhere and stickers proclaim: "Only the people will decide.''

"Our main point," explained Rabbi Pinhas Hayman, "is to show that our struggle is over the entire Land of Israel. Standing here, you can see Tel Aviv, you can see Raanana, where I live with my wife and six children. If the Palestinians had artillery here, they could hit my house."

Maybe, but what would Magen Dan add to Israel's security? Elkana is already there. Mr Rabin has no intention of letting the Palestinians introduce big guns to the West Bank.

Nissan Slomiansky, Elkana's council head, is quick to answer. "What we don't settle," he said, "they'll give back to Yasser Arafat."

Mr Slomiansky, who has a clipped military moustache and wears a blue baseball cap, is still hopeful. "If they don't evacuate us in another week, we'll know we're here to stay. Magen Dan will become a new neighbourhood of Elkana. It's within our municipal borders. We'll put in development plans."

Everything, he knows, hinges on the support they can muster from Greater Tel Aviv, 600ft below. But will more settlers volunteer for the West Bank, now that its fate is on the block? The signs are not encouraging.

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