DATELINE: ISRAEL

The West Bank settlers dig in their heels

Their removal may be the price Israel pays for peace

Eric Silver March 23 1981
DATELINE: ISRAEL

The West Bank settlers dig in their heels

Their removal may be the price Israel pays for peace

Eric Silver March 23 1981

The West Bank settlers dig in their heels

DATELINE: ISRAEL

Their removal may be the price Israel pays for peace

Eric Silver

Kedumim is a lonely Jewish outpost located within the perimeter of a military camp 10 km west of Nablus, the biggest of the West Bank Arab towns. The outpost consists largely of rows of prefabricated temporary bungalows strung along the contours of the rocky hillside, but it is home to 135 families and 80 yeshiva (Talmudic seminary) students.

Kedumim is the flagship of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, a persistent group of Jews determined to settle in Samaria, the ancient name for the northern region of the West Bank. Under a variety of names on a variety of sites, the founding nucleus of religionationalist zealots defied Israel’s last Labor government eight times in their determination to remain on the occupied West Bank. Seven times, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s administration reaffirmed its policy of keeping Israelis out of the populated Arab areas, which it hoped one day to restore to Arab rule, and forced the evacuation of the settlements. The eighth time, in December, 1975, the army command advised the prime minister that because too many sympathizers had joined them, the settlers could not be

moved without bloodshed. Rabin gave way, and Kedumim was launched.

Five years later, the settlers are bracing themselves for the return of another Labor government committed, this time, to “territorial compromise” with King Hussein of Jordan. Labor leader Shimon Peres talks of leaving the settlers where they are, even if this means leaving them under Arab sovereignty. Nonetheless, his prospective foreign minister, Abba Eban, prefers to keep a Labor government’s prerogative of following Menachem Begin’s Sinai precedent and evacuate settlements if this is the price Israel has to pay for peace. Labor has, of course, still to win the June 30 general election, and Peres has still to prove that he can entice Hussein into negotiation. However, the prospect of a Labor government—unanimously predicted by the

opinion polls— does not yet alarm the West Bank settlers, but it has increased their sense of urgency.

The 18,000 Jewish settlers have not changed the Arab character of the landscape. Their settlements remain small and remote among the older towns and villages with their total population of 700,000 Palestinians. The number of Jewish families is barely 3,000, with a high ratio of children to adults.

The settlers, for the most part, have already staked out their positions. “We are not terribly frightened of Shimon Peres,” says Baruch Robbins, a retired American rabbi and veteran Zionist hawk. “It will be easier for us to fight off any of Peres’ weaknesses than it was to fight off those of Begin. Begin’s posture disarmed us.”

Israel Harel, chairman of the West Bank and Gaza Settlements Council, predicts that if Samaria were handed back to the Arabs most of the settlers would stay. “We are an avant-garde. We might even be reinforced.” If it came to evacuation, Harel foresees “some who would accept orders from a government, some who would resist passively, but also some who would resist actively. It can start with civil disobedience and can end with shooting,” says Harel. “If the government orders the police or the army to remove us by force, I can see an element in various settlements—I don’t know how big it is—who will say that no government has the right to evacuate the heart of Eretz Yisrael [the ancient land of Israel] and that we should resist with all means.”

Rabbi Robbins, who at 66 looks like a Jewish Burl Ives, has no doubt which side he would be on. “I would fight against anybody who tries to take me off my iand,” he says, “whether they be foreigners or traitors within my own people. No one pushes me off my land. If they tried to remove us, it would mean civil war. The vast majority of Jews in Israel, who are against giving up Judaea and Samaria [the West Bank], would support us.” The risk is real enough. Most males in the 60 West Bank settlements are reserve soldiers. Many have combat experience in elite paratroop units, some as officers. Every household has a sub-machinegun in the closet. In Kedumim a ma-

jority of the women have also served in the army.

But even in militant Kedumim, the settlers are divided on how far they would resist if it came to enforced evacuation on the orders of a democratically elected Israeli government. The battlefield creates its own inhibitions. “If this area is returned to Jordan,” Shmuel Mordechai, a 32-year-old native Israeli, explains, “I will stay. It is more important to live in the land of Israel than under Jewish sovereignty. If ordered to leave, I would refuse. They will have to take me by force. But I won’t use a weapon. I have been a soldier, I know about war. It is not so easy to shoot to kill, even when it is an enemy. I would certainly not shoot to kill a fellow Jew.” Another settler, who preferred not to be identified, adds: “In the end I would go back to Tel Aviv. The unity of the nation is more important for me than the unity of Eretz Yisrael.”

At Ariel, a secular new town founded by right-wing Labor supporters west of the main Ramallah-Nablus road, the misgivings are even more open. Britishborn Patricia Carmel, a 33-year-old mother of three, ridicules the very idea that Peres would ever reach the point of challenging the settlers to stay under Jordan. “We don’t want to live in the diaspora [exile] in Eretz Yisrael,” she argues. Her husband, Nahum, who travels the 58 km daily to work at BenGurion International Airport, confirms: “We settled here because we

think this is the heart of Eretz Yisrael. No government can reach an agreement on the disposition of this land without a referendum. I would campaign to influence public opinion and I would not accept the result as a final word.” However, Nahum Carmel’s resistance would stop short of violence. “Should any group of people see fit to set up an army that would not answer to the government of Israel, I would go out and fight it. We are a long way from the Altalena [the Irgun Zvai Leumi arms ship that was sunk in 1948 by order of Israel’s first prime minister, David BenGurion]. But I would resist passively. I

Elkana and Shavei Shomron.

The settlers wish him success, but experience has taught them to doubt all governments, however sympathetic to their cause. Permanent housing cannot go up overnight, especially when the public purse is empty and the government is slashing budgets all round in its war against 132-per-cent inflation. An overwhelming proportion of the present settlers are still living in temporary accommodation. In Ofra, the first of the Gush Emunim (block of the faithful) villages, 50 permanent red-roofed bungalows are almost ready; 60 two-storey terraced houses have been finished in

see it as a tragedy that talk like this should even arise.”

But four years of Likud party rule have doubled the number of settlements and made the problem much more difficult. It would be much harder now to repartition Palestine along simple geographic or security lines. In the remaining few months of the Begin term, Settlements Minister Ariel Sharon is aiming to reinforce his achievement. He plans to establish 10 new settlements, announced by Prime Minister Begin as the Likud party’s final fling, and to build 3,000 permanent homes in three existing settlements, Karnei Shomron,

Ariel and 45 in Salit. Another 40 are on the way in Shavei Shomron.

Givon, north of Jerusalem, highlights the gap between aspiration and performance. It was slated as a Jewish new town by the last Labor government. Three hundred settlers from Begin’s Herut movement have been waiting there for SV2 years in primitive conditions, but the government has still not started permanent building. Early this year they took the law into their own hands to try and force Ariel Sharon’s hand by setting up a tent camp on a hilltop site designated for them. “If Sharon had a budget,” suggested Israel Harel, chairman of the Settlements Council, “he could do something. But he does not have a budget and he doesn’t control the housing ministry.”

Sharon is, however, making a real effort to appease the settlers. During the past six months, he has fanned Palestinian resentment by seizing a record 6,000 acres of disputed land for settlements. Even if a new Labor government manages to avoid bloody confrontation with the Jews, it may still need the riot police to keep the Arabs in line.