Israeli settlers fight a losing battle: The murder of a West Bank student highlights the plight of the Jewish religious communities confronting Palestinian rule

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The Independent Online
THE KINDERGARTEN class at Beit El was asked to paint a picture of an Arab in class last week, as an exercise in understanding the death of Chaim Mizrahi. A religious student at Beit El, a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, Mr Mizrahi was stabbed to death beside a Palestinian chicken coop, and his charred body was found in a burnt-out car.

'There was a lot of fear in what they drew,' said Becky Pinsky, an immigrant from Brooklyn. 'Their Arabs had outsized arms and tremendous heads. One had an Arab holding a large rock in his hands. They all tried to picture the story of Chaim's death, with large patches of red blood and black and red flames all around.'

Ms Pinksy's four-year-old pupils went on to recite their Friday morning Bible verse, which tells of their right to live in all Israel, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean, including Beit El. 'For all the land you see, to you will I give, and to your seed for ever.'

The children's parents also expressed their feelings about Mr Mizrahi's death last week. As Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, said that it carried out the killing, the settlers stuck up a poster on the door of the synagogue, saying 'May God avenge his blood.' They then rampaged through the neighbouring Palestinian town of Ramallah, blocking roads, throwing rocks and setting Arab cars alight. They also burnt down a schoolroom in a Palestinian refugee camp.

By Friday, the adults had themselves turned to prayer. They walked from the settlement to the patch of land where Mr Mizrahi's killers ambushed him as he went to buy eggs from a Palestinian farmer. At a desk set up next to the coop, Aviv Simchi, a Yemenite Jew, was reading from the scriptures. Women sat with babies in a make-shift camp. Through loudspeakers, the settler leaders promised to build where Jewish blood was spilt.

'We came to fulfil a dream,' they cried, as washing flapped in the wind from the roofs of surrounding, shuttered Arab houses. For every settler, an Israeli soldier watched, gun trained, from the walls.

The violence provoked by the killing of Mr Mizrahi shows just how volatile the mood in Jewish settlements has become as the deadline for Palestinian self-rule approaches. This was clearly an attack by extremists determined to disrupt the peace process by provoking Jewish anger: they succeeded with predictable ease.

More than 130,000 settlers live in communities such as Beit El throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When Palestinians set up their own authority over the next few months, the settlements will become isolated enclaves.

In some areas, around Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley, the Israeli government will fight to keep sovereignty over settlements for good, on grounds of security. But the future of at least 100 others in the heart of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is bleak.

While Israel insists the settlements remain under its rule during the five-year period of autonomy, and promises to use the army to protect them, there are no long-term guarantees. The government message reaching the settlers is clear: 'Waken up. Look at the Palestinian state that is giving birth around you, and start thinking about moving back across the Green Line.'

For those settlers lured out by cheap housing, moving back may come easy. But for those in religious settlements such as Beit El, abandoning the Eretz Israel dream will be traumatic.

Until now, religious ideology has made it easy for the residents of Beit El to shut out the reality around them. Beit El is theirs by right, they say, because it is the site where Jacob had his dream. The site is mentioned 65 times in the Bible. There were 'never any Arabs on this land', they say, as if reciting another Bible verse. It is 'the only country we have. The pact between God and Israel says that this land is ours.'

Beit El is almost a northern extension of the Palestinian town of Ramallah, but it is entirely severed from the Palestinian community. To reach the settlement, an Israeli must drive through Ramallah at high speed in a specially protected car, and be swiftly checked in at the gate by a colour-coded number plate.

On top of a hill, sheltering behind a large Israeli Army base, the settlers have built a self-contained community of peaceful parks and walkways, a gymnasium, three synagogues, shops, a swimming pool, a petrol station and 600 neat little homes with tiny windows.

Now the dream is beginning to fall apart. The settlers driving on the roads know that soon the Israeli Army will withdraw outside centres of Arab population such as Ramallah. For years they have watched their Jewish communities grow, confident in the knowledge that the Palestinians were cowed under occupation. Now they see Palestinian life taking root again with shops and restaurants opening, while building in the settlements has been hindered by government cuts.

What is more, the settlers are losing touch with Israelis on the other side of the Green Line. Since the peace deal, many Israelis have taken a more generous view of 'the Arab' as a person who wants peace. To the settlers, however, Arabs remain terrorists who want only to kill.

There are those in the settlements who are persisting with the dream. More and more settlers are moving to live with them, they say, particularly since Mr Mizrahi's death.

'It has always been the same in Jewish history. Wherever there is a Jewish killing, more Jews will come,' said Moshe, who arrived last week from Brooklyn, to live in Beit El. 'I will fight for Beit El until the end,' he declared.

But there are also many who are showing signs of realism about the future. The new Labour government, they know, has abandoned them. They talk of being 'starved out', that the government will one day cut off their electricity and water. They know that Mr Mizrahi's death is seen by the government as a price that has to be paid on the road to peace. At the memorial service on Friday, many Beit El settlers also knew that the mass presence of the Israeli Army was as much to prevent further Jewish violence upon Arabs, as Arab violence upon Jews.

(Photograph omitted)

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