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The seeds of conflict sown in settlements

By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 4/21/2002

A series of occasional articles on obstacles to peace in the Middle East

Part 1 April 21
The seeds of conflict sown in settlements

Part 2 May 26
Jerusalem: Center of a sacred struggle

Part 3 June 30
Sacred sites caught in historic conflict

Part 4 August 25
Hard-line refugees won't budge on Israel

Part 5 November 10
A struggle for water, in Mideast

Part 6 December 25
Trust is the greatest casualty in Mideast rift


Tussle over holy sites
A look at some of the places revered by Muslims and Jews.

The refugees
Where Palestinian refugees are located.

Conflict over water
Where the water comes from.

TEKO'A, West Bank -- When the sound of heavy machine-gun fire from nearby Bethlehem rolls across the wildflower-bedecked Judean hills, Tuly Seinfeld does not even turn his head from the new homes he is showing to visitors in the Israeli settlement he manages. The struggle for the beautiful pastures, cool caves, and ancient legacies of this region has been the central fact of his life since infancy. Now he is 55, and he does not see that struggle ending.For Seinfeld and his friends, and their fathers before them, the struggle is to establish the right of Jews to live in the biblical land of Israel. For many Palestinians, and their fathers before them, it is to be rid of people like Seinfeld and settlements like Teko'a.

A "settlement," in the terminology of the Middle East, is any Jewish community constructed on territory occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. Starting as defense-related outposts in the Golan Heights, Jordan Valley, and southern Gaza Strip in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they grew explosively in the 1980s and 1990s, and now are spread throughout areas densely populated by Palestinians.

Advocates and critics alike say they are the single largest obstacle to creation of a viable Palestinian state. If there is ever to be Mideast peace, US Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said as he departed the region last week, "the destructive impact of settlements and occupation" must end.

There are more than 200,000 Israelis in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and another 200,000 on land annexed to Jerusalem after the Six-Day War that the Palestinians still claim. They live in at least 140 and perhaps more than 200 communities, depending on who is counting, ranging in size from clusters of trailers to fully articulated cities. And they grate relentlessly on the Palestinians surrounding them.

Palestinian frustrations rise amid the settlements

"I feel frustrated every day," says Talha Darwish, a farmer and English teacher who lives in al-Khader, a Palestinian village whose lands extend from Bethlehem to the edge of the settlement bloc of which Teko'a is part. For years, he says, "I see Efrat" -- the bloc's major city -- "expand on my land. I look into the face of my 3-year-old child and I tell myself he has no future. He will remain under occupation."

Jad Ishaq, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at Camp David, says the settlements are illegal; the Palestinians argue that Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention bars an occupying power from transferring part of its population to occupied land.

Even Israelis who would vacate the settlements in return for a resolution of the struggle with the Palestinians reject that view.

Israel's belief, according to Foreign Ministry legal adviser Alan Baker, is that the territories were illegally occupied by other countries -- Jordan and Egypt -- before the Six-Day War, that there was never a Palestinian state that was conquered, and so there is no occupation in the Geneva Conventions meaning of the term.

Still, according to recent polls in major newspapers, a majority of Israelis would withdraw from some or all of them in return for genuine peace.

That even includes men like Tuly Seinfeld, who has deep roots here: His father was one of 135 Jews massacred in nearby Kibbutz Kfar Etzion when Arab forces overran the collective settlement on the eve of Israeli independence, in May 1948.

"I am tired of war. I want peace," Seinfeld says. "But if you talk from weakness, it is not good. If you give and you give from weakness, in the end you will lose all. . . . There is enough space to live for them and us. The problem for them is not the settlements. The problem for them is the Jews.

"People here continue to live, to drive to work every day," he continues. "If they took their luggage and left for Netanya, then the hotel there is bombed. . . . There is no difference between Teko'a and every other village in Israel."

That has become more and more true in the quarter-century since Israel began widespread development of settlements, and not just because the danger of Palestinian attacks has become the same everywhere. The image of bleak, hilltop clusters of trailer homes surrounded with concertina wire has given way to attractive modern housing and neatly landscaped community centers, clinics, and schools.

Nor do the settlers fit their image as single-minded religious fanatics; they have diverse views about the Palestinians, about religion, and about prospects for peace. They are here for a variety of reasons, too -- religious, yes, but also economic and defensive.

When Ya'akov Torten and his family immigrated to Israel from Argentina in the early 1970s, they had no intention of living in a settlement. Still, young Ya'akov was dreaming, following the seemingly miraculous 1967 victory, of the eventual, divinely delivered restoration of "Big Israel, like it was in the Bible, with a big part of Jordan, a big part of Syria."

The authorities "told my father, `We have this new neighborhood,' and he said, `I'm not living there; you live there,' " says Torten, 45, a mechanic and car dealer. "But he didn't have much choice. For what the most expensive place in Buenos Aires cost, we couldn't buy in Israel one room."

After army service and marriage, Torten and his wife rented apartments -- some in pre-1967 Israel, some in the territories -- and in all of them something was missing: here, not enough space for the children to play; there, nonreligious neighbors who flaunted their lack of observance of the Sabbath.

In Teko'a, population 980, they found everything they wanted -- a mixed community of religious and nonreligious people who showed consideration and respect for one another, space outside the urban sprawl of developing Israel, a good environment for their growing family, a place to start a business.

Torten opened a garage. Though Teko'a and two smaller, neighboring settlements were surrounded by Palestinian towns, the half-hour drive to Jerusalem was easy and not too dangerous. Customers came, and he prospered.

As he matured, Torten combined his hopes for the restoration of historical Israel and love for the environment of the Judean hills with a conviction that settlements in the territories are essential to Israel's security.

"For the Arabs, there is no compromise," Torten says. "I've lived with them. I know them well. They believe all Israel is Arab land" -- an assertion that is frequently made by Palestinians.

"No matter what agreement we make with them, will it be enough?" he asks. "We cannot have them armed near our door. We need some wider margin between our population centers and our neighbors."

The current unrest has changed life for the worse in several ways. Torten had to close his garage because "no one is willing to come to Teko'a to have his car fixed," and recently shots have been fired at his children's school.

"To get out of Teko'a, it would hurt me. I need it," he says, taking a break from work. "But I am ready to leave Teko'a for the possibility of peace. I don't really believe it will happen, but I do not want to be the one to block this process."

At the national level, Israel's relationship with the settlements is as complex as Torten's thinking -- a mix of security concerns and religious convictions that gradually have been counterbalanced by a belief that some, if not all, of the settlements are untenable and would eventually be bargained away for peace.

In the immediate aftermath of the conquest of the territories -- the West Bank was Jordanian, Gaza was Egyptian, the Golan Heights Syrian before the Six Day War -- the emphasis was on using settlements to strengthen Israel's security.

The first settlements were in the Golan, where the settlers took possession of strategic highlands that had been used by Syria to rain shells and rockets on farms and villages in northern Israel; along the Jordan River valley, to strengthen the new border with Jordan; and in southern Gaza and Sinai, where there was a new frontier with Egypt.

Government policy at the time was not to create settlements in the hill country of Samaria, the West Bank region north of Jerusalem, and Judea, south of Jerusalem; the idea was that these concentrations of Palestinian population might then one day again become part of Jordan.

But the policy did not stick.

Seinfeld and other orphans of Jews killed defending the Etzion bloc in 1948 asked permission to resurrect the kibbutzim of their slain parents. Government agencies denied their request, but the children of 1948, many of whom were soldiers in the war of 1967, threatened a sit-in and petitioned the government.

"All the children of Kfar Etzion went to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and told him the children of Kfar Etzion wanted to go home," Seinfeld recalls, "and he said to us, `Okay, children, you can go home.' "

Israeli public sentiment supports Jewish settlers

They built a world far larger and more prosperous than their fathers did, but dedicated to the same proposition -- that Jews should be free to live anywhere between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Today, the Etzion bloc region encompasses a small city, Efrat, 15 villages, and three kibbutzim, with a total population of about 20,000.

The settlement that eventually would cause the government's settlements-for-defense policy to collapse altogether began the year after the war. At Passover 1968, Jews masquerading as tourists went to the West Bank city of Hebron for a seder. When the holiday ended, they refused to leave.

Public sentiment in Israel supported the settlers, who aimed to reestablish a centuries-old Jewish presence wiped out by rioting Arabs in 1929, and to ensure Jewish access to Hebron's Cave of Mahpela, burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. Jews had not been permitted to worship there during Muslim rule.

The government declined to evict them, and two years later sanctioned the founding of a second settlement nearby -- Kiryat Arba -- which became a hotbed of pro-settlement activism. Today it has more than 6,000 residents who live close by, and in constant friction with, about 250,000 Palestinian residents of the greater Hebron area.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, religious belief supplanted the secular, socialist values of Israel's founders as the driving force behind Zionism. In parallel, development of ever-more-potent long-range weapons and the signing of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan turned Israel's military strategists away from the settlements-for-defense idea.

Twice the settlement movement showed signs of flagging, and both times Ariel Sharon, the current Israeli prime minister, played a key role in reenergizing it.

In the early 1980s, Israeli court rulings against land confiscations threatened to halt the movement. Sharon, then minister of agriculture, came up with a framework for transferring land that the courts accepted. A burst of settlement activity followed.

In 1991, when pro-settlement forces feared the first Palestinian uprising against Israel was slowing growth, Sharon, at the time minister of housing and construction, fostered the creation of settlements as bedroom communities to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Growth took off again.

In both instances, he was working for Likud party governments that, in the words of former prime minister Menachem Begin, aimed to create facts on the ground that later governments and the international community would be unable to undo. Since 1992, formal Israeli policy has been a freeze on new settlements, but numbers of settlers have grown robustly, encouraged by long-established government economic incentives. Israel calls it natural growth; Palestinian and Israeli critics say there are dozens of new settlements.

Reversal of movement is seen as impossible

Now, "only a lunatic would think these settlements can be moved," says Geula Cohen, a veteran of both the war of independence and the settlement drive, whom many refer to as a grandmother of the movement. Even a government attempt to remove the least-tenable settlements, small communities in the midst of large numbers of Palestinians, would spark "civil war," Cohen says, and in any case "the Palestinians will never agree" to anything less than full withdrawal.

A whole new generation of determined religious Israelis now is in place to carry on the movement that Cohen and her compatriots started.

"We're here because we're here," says Shimon Palmer, 26, a goatherd who grew up in Kiryat Arba and now lives in the newest neighborhood of Teko'a, which was started in response to the murder of two 12-year-old boys from the settlement by Palestinians a year ago.

"I don't care about American politics, I don't care if the Arabs live or die, I don't care much about the State of Israel," he says. "I will trust in God and hope to see the End of Days" -- the turmoil during which all Jews return to live in peace in the biblical land and the Messiah comes.

Given such sentiments, both Israeli and Palestinian critics of the settlements say there is very little chance of a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The settlements, the bypass roads that serve them, and the buffer zones between Israelis and Palestinians that the Sharon government recently began creating all are part of "a plan to cut the West Bank into parcels" so that there cannot be a viable Palestinian state, says Ishaq, the Palestinian expert on settlements. Unless the settlements are removed, "there will be no cease-fire, and continued intifadah," he adds. "There is no hope."

Retired general Shlomo Gazit, who was the first director of government activities in the territories, agrees.

The settlements "have become a clear message to the local population that Israel is planning to turn this area into greater Israel, and that they should not even dream about having a Palestinian state," he says. "It we don't do something" to signal a willingness to change this policy, "there is no hope for any future agreement."

Part 2: Jerusalem: Center of a sacred struggle

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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