Fri, 08 Dec 2000

Israeli soldiers stand by settlements

By Megan Goldin

JERUSALEM (Reuters): Israel has deployed armored personnel carriers and sent soldiers, sometimes to their deaths, to defend the very Jewish settlements that a few months ago it was preparing to uproot for peace with the Palestinians.

Palestinians say their revolt, which filled a vacuum left by an inconclusive peace summit, is to force Jewish settlers out of the occupied West Bank and Gaza and carve out a state on these lands captured by Israel at war in 1967.

The Intifada, or uprising, is now in its third month.

President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction has urged Palestinians to "burn the ground beneath the feet" of settlers and the soldiers who protect them as Palestinians regard settlers, some of whom are armed, as tools of the occupation.

"Let the hunting operations of settlers continue because they will not leave except under the pressure of your blows," Fatah said in a leaflet.

Palestinians say they have drawn inspiration from Israel's unilateral withdrawal from south Lebanon in May which they believe proves that if Israel suffers too many casualties the country will lose its appetite for conflict and withdraw.

Finding themselves on the firing line from nearly daily shootings or bomb attacks, many settlers have stocked up on bullet-proof vests and armor-plated vehicles.

According to Tel Aviv University settler expert Elisha Efrat most of the settlers are not extremists, but rather Israelis who believed they were helping secure Israel's narrow and vulnerable borders and were offered good deals on land by the government.

Efrat said around 40 percent of settlers fall into this category and if they continue being targeted by gunfire and roadside bombs, many will pack up and leave. The other 50 percent, who are religious and nationalistic, would have more staying power, he said, but not much.

Efrat said the most dangerous settlers were those who had moved to mountainous parts of the West Bank to live amidst densely populated Palestinian areas in a drive to reclaim lands where Jews lived in the time of the Bible.

"They believe it is the land of Israel and it is the place where Jews should live. That it is the territory that belongs to them after 2,000 years of exile and they have to return there".

He said these settlers were not affected by the presence of Palestinians, adding that "fanatics" made up about 10 percent of the 200,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza and most lived in areas near Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus.

The 145 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are Israel's soft under-belly. Not only do they not all draw widespread public support, but defending many of the settlements and their access roads is a security nightmare for the Israeli army. About three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza.

The head of the army's military operations unit, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, acknowledged that in purely military terms, the army would be better off if it did not have to protect some of the more isolated settlements which are situated among dense Palestinian population centers.

But he said Israel is "not going to evacuate any settlements just as part of the pressure of the Palestinians".

"It will be a strategic mistake to do it right now so we are not going to do it even if there are some military benefits."

Israeli analysts agree that while Israel will have to dismantle most of the settlements under any peace treaty with the Palestinians, it could never withdraw from Jewish settlements under the barrel of a gun.

Shai Feldman from Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies said abandoning settlements, unless in the context of peace negotiations, would send a dangerous message to the Palestinians and shatter hopes for a lasting peace.

Feldman said Israel could not afford to give the other side the impression that whenever it reached a crisis or deadlock, it could turn to violence and Israel would run away.

"That will be a rotten basis for co-existence between Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

Even Israel's Peace Now group which has launched a media blitz calling on the government to announce its intention to dismantle isolated settlements admits this can only be done as a goodwill gesture in the framework of negotiations.

"It would be very nice if we could just pick up and leave...but unfortunately it just can't be done," said Peace Now activist and political scientist Galia Golan.

Among the settlements she lists are Netzarim and Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip and several West Bank settlements including three in the heart of the divided town of Hebron.

"We are not talking about doing all this unilaterally. We think there has to be an agreement between the sides," she said.

Golan said any sort of unilateral withdrawal was impractical because extracting the 200,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank and Gaza could only be done through a negotiated agreement.

Also, she said, Israel's security concerns would need to be safeguarded in a deal and a lasting peace could only be ensured if it were enshrined in a peace treaty.

Feldman said that anyway, it would be political suicide for an Israeli leader to dismantle settlements on land that many Jews believe is their biblical birthright, without cementing it in a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

Palestinian analyst Khalil Shikaki said Palestinians had realized they could not gain occupied lands through an "armed struggle" and had changed tactics to a "non-violent Intifada (uprising)" to "create instability in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship in order to ensure their future is not put aside."

Prof. Ephraim Yaar, a public opinion expert, said Israeli reaction to violence in areas they see as on their doorstep will be quite different to the Lebanon scenario, where regular casualties led to public pressure for a withdrawal.

"They (the Palestinians) are attacking nearer to Israeli homes," he said. "The Israelis now feel they are threatened personally and they draw what you might call a moral line. After all, south Lebanon was never considered part of Israel."

Yaar said that while 75 percent of Israelis favor dismantling isolated settlements as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, only 13 percent support unilaterally evacuating settlements under fire.

"Israelis don't want to feel that they are pushed out. They want to be reassured that once they evacuate those settlements and give the territory to the Palestinians that the Palestinians will not come with new demands," Yaar said.

Palestinians say their uprising will never end as long as settlements remain on occupied land. But Israel has dug in its heels.

As one senior Israeli security official, speaking on condition he was not identified, put it: "In the part of the world we live in, once you start withdrawing under fire, you never stop".