Israel's suburbanite occupation force West Bank

Most Jewish settlers on the West Bank are not the gun-toting fanatics we see on television news - but they are there illegally all the same
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The Independent Online

Here is a simple statement for you: Robert Loval is a Jewish settler who lives on the Israeli-occupied West Bank with his wife and two children.

Here is a simple statement for you: Robert Loval is a Jewish settler who lives on the Israeli-occupied West Bank with his wife and two children.

Pause for a second, to allow a mental image to form. Right. My guess is that by now you have furnished him with a long beard, a skullcap, an M-16 automatic rifle, wild, staring eyes, and an extreme set of opinions.

Enough of the 200,000 settlers who live on the West Bank or Gaza Strip conform to this stereotype for it to have a strong basis in truth. Their presence in the occupied territories is one of the main casus belli underlying this conflict, and a source of resentment, not only among Palestinians, but also many Israelis who see them as an obstacle to peace. During the seven-year Oslo talks, settler numbers rocketed by 53 per cent, encouraged by hefty Israeli government subsidies.

With their firearms, their demonstrations, their sectarian attacks on Arab villages, their ranting and often racist views, the hardline settlers dominate the debate. Yet they are far from the full story. The settler population embraces a wide range of people, from ultra-Orthodox Jews who have contempt for the state of Israel, to pragmatic collective farmers, to fanatical religious nationalists who believe that the landscape is theirs by Biblical right, to ... Robert Loval.

Mr Loval, a 43-year-old English teacher, was born and brought up in Newcastle. To his family's consternation, he moved to Israel in 1983 because he believed that he and his children should have a strong secular Jewish identity. Six years ago, he became a West Bank settler for reasons that had nothing to do with religion or politics, but everything to do with household economics.

Eager to find a pleasant and safe environment for his son and daughter - now aged 10 and 13 - he sold his small three-room flat in Jerusalem. For the same price, he was able to buy a large apartment with a garden in Ma'aleh Adumim, just three miles down the dual carriageway that sweeps out from the east edge of Jerusalem.

For the family, it must have been much like moving from London to Milton Keynes. Their adopted new town is a picture of commuter-belt civic order, transplanted to a barren hilltop in the desert west of the Dead Sea. There are landscaped roundabouts, graffiti-free bus stops, spotless playgrounds, pristine apartment blocks and a shining shopping mall. Newly-planted palms and oleanders fill the central reservations.

Primary colours abound, as if the entire place was a giant primary school. Which is not surprising, for Ma'aleh Adumim was built to deceive. You would barely know that this is also a town from which Arabs, on whose land it is built, are banned unless they have a permit.

Its air of serene permanence also belies the fact that it was built by Israel, in contravention of international law, for the express strategic purpose of splitting the West Bank in half; controlling the key route east to Jordan, and giving Israel overall control of the Jerusalem metropolitan area. The prime minister, Ehud Barak, has declared it to be forever part of Israel.

With 25,000 residents, Ma'aleh Adumim is already the largest settlement, but plans exist for massive expansion, becoming the eastern gateway to a Greater Jerusalem. Like Mr Loval, many of its citizens, including a sizable community of former Soviet citizens, are secular people drawn there by nothing more sinister than a desire for a better lifestyle.

Mr Loval insists he would happily abandon this suburban comfort - with suitable compensation - if he thought it would bring lasting peace with the Palestinians. His views bear no resemblance to those of the hardline settlers.

He believes they are are "mad" and should have been booted out of the occupied territories years ago. He also condemns Bill Clinton for blaming Yasser Arafat for the failure of Camp David; he speaks of the killing by the police of 13 Israeli Arabs as "a disgusting mistake", and say he is "shocked" by the discrimination in Israel against the Arab population. He would gladly see Israel give back 95 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza in a peace agreement, so long as it would be permanent.

There's the rub. Perhaps he is searching for excuses to justify his own small act of occupation. But his views are so widely shared by other liberal Israelis that they deserve serious consideration. They fear that handing the land back to the Palestinians will not guarantee an end to the conflict, no matter what promises are made on paper. Recent deadly bombing attacks in west Jerusalem and Hadera have deepened the distrust.

What if, they ask, Israel's soldiers and settlers retreat from the West Bank and Gaza, only to find that the war has followed them over the 1967 Green Line into the heartland? "The Palestinians are not giving us a clear signal," said Mr Loval. "I would even be prepared to leave if I thought there would only be one or two bombs a year. But what we can't stand is the feeling that Arafat might go on doing more."

It may not be up to Mr Arafat. The Palestinians are divided between those who want to confine the fight to the occupied territories, and the more radical elements, such as Islamic Jihad, waging a guerrilla war against Israel's very existence.

For now, Mr Loval is buckling down. Ma'aleh Adumim has so far remained quiet. There have been none of the drive-by shootings - in which three Israelis were killed on Friday - or the nightly gun battles that have occurred elsewhere between Palestinians, the settlers and the Israeli army who protect them. Mr Loval and his family have been making a few adjustments, avoiding using the buses as often as before, and being more watchful in public places. They carry on, hoping for the best.

Palestinian activists make no secret that driving the settlers out of their territory is a primary objective. So far, they have directed most of their energies at the radical settlers who insist on living in the midst of Arab populations - such as those in Hebron, where 30,000 Palestinians have spent week after week under curfew because of the presence of a few hundred Jewish fanatics.

But no one knows how long the Palestinians will go on distinguishing between the loonies with the M-16s and the secular commuters of Ma'aleh Adumim.