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(Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)
(Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)

Do these Israeli settlers block the path to peace? Add to ...

The fire started easily. Midway through July, the relentless sun had turned the grass and scrub into tinder. A couple of molotov cocktails tossed on the ground were enough to get it going. A stiff wind out of the west made sure it spread quickly. It raced across the open hillsides where sheep and goats often grazed, and leapt into the olive groves of the Palestinian farmers who live below the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar.

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As a reporter watched, the farmers rushed outside and tried hopelessly to tamp out the flames with olive branches. But the flames spread too rapidly, and the groves were quickly overwhelmed. A fire brigade from the nearby Palestinian city of Nablus arrived but could not get its water tank near enough to the fire.

On the hillside above the fire, half a dozen young men from Yitzhar were making their way slowly back to the settlement, stopping every few minutes to turn and look back at their handiwork. Above, inside the guarded settlement, a bunch of the hilltop youth, as they are known, looked down excitedly. “Ayzeh yofi!” some exclaimed (“How beautiful!”), clapping each other on the back. A couple of the youths carried large jugs of water down to their thirsty friends below.

Nicknamed for their small settlements strategically positioned on high, the hilltop youth are unmistakable in their trademark long, curled hair and loosely knitted skull caps. Their fringe movement has a reputation for violence – Israel has charged many of them with desecrating mosques and torching Arab fields. This week, four from Yitzhar were banned by the Israeli army for a year from being anywhere in Judea and Samaria, the occupied West Bank.

This fall Palestinians will go to the United Nations to seek recognition of this land as part of a sovereign state. Canada, the U.S. and other Israel allies will oppose them. But in many people's eyes, the last hard line of defence against such a state's creation runs through Yitzhar and the 100 or more settlements and outposts like it, whose people will not walk away from what they consider their Biblically mandated home.

The extremists are a minority of the settlers, and not large enough in number to defeat a determined government action. But their political and symbolic influence is disproportionate – as is their will to defend their convictions to the end, which alarms Israel’s armed forces. And while the majority of Israel’s six million citizens oppose the illegal settlements, few relish the spectre of Jew fighting Jew in their evacuation.

The Palestinians are seeking a state defined by the borders that existed between Israel and the Jordanian-controlled West Bank prior to Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. At Israel’s insistence, however, there will have to be adjustments to account for areas where large concentrations of settlers now live. That land is to be swapped for land on Israel’s side of the frontier, which will go to Palestine.

The problem is that as many as 160,000 settlers will be outside the blocs that are to be traded to Israel, leaving them adrift – an archipelago of hilltop communities in a Palestinian sea.

Many of them won’t go without a fight. “People talk about the violent resistance when the settlements in Gaza were evacuated,” says Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ political organization. He is referring to the 2005 settlers’ eviction ordered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and carried out by the Israeli army. “If they think evicting 8,000 people in Gaza was difficult, wait until they try to evict 160,000.”

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, believes that number is exaggerated. But he agrees it may get violent. “Out of, say, 80,000 settlers whose homes are on the line, a few thousand are extreme enough and anarchistic enough in their attitude toward the state and its instruments of power to consider using force,” he wrote recently.

As well, he added, as many as a third of conscripted Israeli soldiers can be expected to refuse to follow orders to evacuate the settlers, due to the forces’ infiltration “by settlers and other religious Jews whose primary allegiance is to the messianic settlement vision.” (The alternative – the professional paramilitary Border Patrol – might not suffice on its own.)

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