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Do these Israeli settlers block the path to peace?

heidi levine The Globe and Mail

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.

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.

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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.

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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.)

A secular Israeli, Mr. Dayan was born in Argentina and now runs a software company. From his majestic, modern home in the affluent settlement of Maale Shomron., you can see the office towers of Tel Aviv, just 20 kilometres away. He is an outspoken critic of the hilltop youth and other extremists, but he's convinced that the settlements of the West Bank are "irreversible." Ordering their forcible eviction, he says, "would break the backbone of Israeli society, and no responsible Israeli prime minister will do that."

At least, not without paying a steep price. Israel's settlers count on the fact that, to remain in office, successive Israeli coalition governments have been beholden to small, right-wing pro-settler parties, as well as religious parties that are increasingly committed to retaining Israel's "whole land."

Leaving aside the more than 200,000 Israelis who live in the parts of Jerusalem captured from Jordan in 1967, there are three main categories among the 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank: quality-of-lifers, who moved across the Green Line just far enough to take advantage of generous government subsidies and live in homes they couldn't possibly afford in Israel proper; security patriots, mostly secular people who see the occupation of the territory as a contribution to the state; and religious nationalists who adhere to a historic, Biblical view of what Israel should look like.

The quality-of-lifers, though numerous – about 150,000 – are pragmatic. They will vote to remain in their attractive communities, but they will not fight to retain them. The security patriots – perhaps 20,000 – would never think of fighting against Israeli soldiers, but their numbers have declined as a proportion of the West Bank communities.

It is the religious zealots who have grown in number and intensity. From the few dozen that first settled in some formerly Jewish areas such as Hebron and Gush Etzion, they have grown to about 130,000. Their birth rate is four times that of secular settlers, and their commitment to the faith and to their rabbis is unshakeable.

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Drawing on the original Zionist pioneering spirit, they have entrenched themselves in the territory and see themselves as defending a Jewish beachhead, against both hostile Arabs (they don't like to use the term Palestinian) and against their own government.

Every night at dusk in Ramat Gilad, just as the muezzins are calling Muslims to evening prayer in the villages below, a switch is thrown and a giant Star of David is illuminated from the highest point of the hilltop. It can be seen for miles.

It marks the dusty hilltop cluster of seven caravans that is home to Michal Shoham. It was named for her brother, Gilad Zar, an Israeli regional security officer who was killed by Palestinian gunmen a decade ago, and it's one of the settlement outposts planted defiantly in the middle of the mostly Arab Samarian hills in the northern West Bank. It has remained in place despite repeated Israeli army efforts to dismantle it.

"We want everyone to know this land is ours," says Mrs. Shoham, 48. It was "given to us by God."

She points a little way to east to where God is said to have entered into his covenant with Abraham, promising this area to the chosen people, the Jews.

"No one has the right to give it away," Mrs. Shoham says, taking a swipe at the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which said even this week that it would release much of the West Bank for the establishment of a Palestinian state. She takes another swipe at U.S. President Barack Obama for his "pro-Arab" meddling, pushing Israel to compromise on land.

The settlement of the "occupied territories" began within days of the 1967 war. Until that surprise victory, most everyone, from Israel's founding prime minister David Ben Gurion on down, was content to build a country within the lines established by the Arab-Israeli fighting of 1948-49 (about 30 per cent more territory than the 1947 UN partition plan had promised the Jewish state).

But after the victorious Six-Day War, requests to settle the captured land flooded in: east Jerusalem and its Old City, Kfar Etzion near Bethlehem, the ancient city of Hebron. All these were in demand because of historic Jewish settlements in them and because of their connections to the Bible. It was land, people said, that shouldn't be given back.

Then there was the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights captured from Syria, and the Sinai and Gaza Strip taken from Egypt. For security reasons, this was land that couldn't be given back.

Settlement in all these areas had early government support. Not so the settlements in Samaria, the northern West Bank. With large Arab populations in places such as Ramallah, Nablus, and Tulkarm, the political leadership viewed the area as a bargaining chip that might draw Jordan into signing a peace treaty.

But, beginning in the early 1970s, prospective Israeli settlers employed techniques used by the Zionist pioneers of the 1920s to 1940s. They first established "facts on the ground." then got official permission for their upstart communities after the fact.

The earliest efforts were thwarted by the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. But, aided by the likes of Ariel Sharon and then-defence minister Shimon Peres, they finally persuaded Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to let them stay.

And the rest is history – a total of some 121 settlements and about 100 outposts in the West Bank.

Working in military intelligence in the early 1970s. Dubi Tal was charged with trying to detect settlers trying to set up camps in Samaria.

"I didn't like working against people who were trying to develop the Jewish state," Mr. Tal says. "So I resigned my commission and joined them."

Until recently the elected head of the settlements of the Jordan Valley, Mr. Tal has overseen the development of enormous amounts of farm land with relatively few people (6,000).

He says he sees the Valley not just as a defensive bulwark against Arab states to the east, but as an integral part of the nation: "All of it is needed for Israel's security."

The yeshiva – Orthodox Jewish college – in Mr. Tal's settlement of Shadmot Mehola is part of the increasingly popular hesder group, yeshivas that provide religious education to conscripts who choose to mix the military with religion.

"We instill the motivation for soldiers to want to defend all of Eretz Israel," said Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, using the term for the whole land of Biblical Israel.

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, rejected the Eretz Israel mantra in 1948, saying he preferred the whole people (in a smaller territory) to the whole land (with its many Arab inhabitants).

In 1967, only one yeshiva, that of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, was preaching the whole-land concept. Today, most yeshivas preach it, hesder or not.

None do so with more conviction than the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar. Founded in the Palestinian city of Nablus (in Hebrew, Shechem) at what is believed to be the tomb of the Biblical Joseph, the yeshiva was forced to retreat to nearby Yitzhar in 2001 during the second Palestinian uprising (intifada).

The school's head rabbi, Yitzchak Ginzburgh, is not only an advocate of Israeli sovereignty over all of Eretz Israel. He also calls for the reinstatement of a Jewish monarchy to rule Israel. He argues that Arabs have no place there and praised Baruch Goldstein in 1994 for his attack on Muslims at prayer in Hebron in which 29 people were killed.

One of Rabbi Ginzburgh's followers, Yitzhak Shapira, a senior rabbi at Od Yosef Hai, once advocated the expulsion or killing of all Palestinian males over the age of 13. He has been arrested for instigating the desecration of a nearby mosque and is widely suspected of encouraging the frequent attacks on nearby Palestinian homes and orchards.

(The director of the yeshiva declined repeated Globe and Mail requests for an interview.)

Last month, the commander of Israel's forces in the West Bank called for the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva to be closed. General Avi Mizrahi said that several of the yeshiva leaders hold views that are not "consistent with democracy" and incite "Jewish terror" such as the attacks on nearby Arab towns and villages.

Avraham Binyamin, a spokesman for the settlement of Yitzhar, says Gen. Mizrahi, an army commander, had no business making such remarks. Accusations of inciting terrorism are "nonsense," says Mr. Binyamin. "Terrorism is something that has to be proved – judged in a court of law – and no one has done anything like that with regard to the yeshiva."

Mr. Binyamin did not deny that there have been acts of violence against Palestinians and their property carried out by youths of Yitzhar. But he argued that "Jews in Judea and Samaria suffer from real terrorism" such as the murder in March of five members of a family in the nearby settlement of Itamar.

"To come along and accuse people when they respond to this sort of thing," he said, "is like accusing a hungry child of stealing bread."

Settlers may be split on whether the hilltop youths' tactics are justified, but they and their supporters share a sense of urgency. As was the case in 1973, when pressure was building on the Israeli government to return the West Bank to Jordan in exchange for peace, settlers today believe that even the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to yield to international pressure and give their land to a Palestinian state.

"The international community today is obsessed with this immediate solution of two states," says Mr. Dayan, the Yesha leader. "It is futile."

Having a Palestinian state on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Mr. Dayan says, is not a formula for peace. "Peace will come if the perception of Israel is that it cannot be beaten," he says. "We [the settlements]are not an obstacle to peace. … We strengthen Israel's perception of being a strong country and therefore we bring peace closer."

Esther Karisch and Benny Katzover, the current leaders of two of the first settlements founded in Samaria, know that their communities are too far from the Green Line ever to be included in any land swap. They, along with two regional youth leaders, have broken away from Yesha to plan their own defences. What will they do if the soldiers come to evict them?

"We will fight," says Ms. Karisch without hesitation. "We will not kill anybody, I promise. … But we will do almost everything except this."

Mrs. Shoham of Ramat Gilad says the same: "I will fight for my home like a tigress fighting for her cubs."

Is compromise possible? Not according to Mr. Dayan. The maximum he believes Israel can afford to offer in negotiations isn't close to the minimum that Palestinian leaders need. However, "that's not as terrible as it sounds," he insists.

"We can reach a modus vivendi – an accommodation that is less than peace, less than a final-status solution – but that will make the life of all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, better."

Such a situation "has its shortcomings," Mr. Dayan acknowledges, including continuing to withhold full political rights from the Palestinians. But if both sides work to improve Palestinian living conditions, it's better than the futile peace process, he says.

This idea – a well-provided, semi-autonomous Palestinian authority – is the most today's West Bank settlers say they'll agree to. Tomorrow's settlers, with their radical yeshiva educations, likely won't support even that.

Hani and Eyal Shvalb, both 22, are one face of that future. Both are children from other settlements who have moved to ever-expanding Elon Moreh, that spot where God spoke to Abraham.

Mr. Shvalb is in the yeshiva, and Ms. Shvalb has given birth to their first child, now four months old. They plan to have nine or 10.

"In another 20 years there will be a Jewish religious majority here," Mr. Shvalb says proudly, referring to all of Israel, including the occupied territories. And there will be no place for a Palestinian state, he says. "If there were two states here, there would be war."

Mr. Shvalb, about the same age as some of the hilltop youth, describes the Palestinians as children crying for candy that they should not have.

As the fire spread that day outside Yitzhar, some of the Israeli settlers grew worried it might actually reach their community. It came close, burning scrub and grass right up to the entrance.

A few days later, the guard at the settlement's entrance gate explained the cause of the scorched bushes and earth just below the gate – at least as it had been told to him.

"The Arabs set a fire," he said. "They tried to burn us out."

Patrick Martin is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.

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