Jewish Settlements Take High Ground In Battle for Peace

Creating Palestinian self-rule on the West Bank will be difficult if more Jews make it their home

ABU MOHAMMED SHBEEB wakes up each morning in his Bedouin tent to see an unfinished road heading straight for his living-room.

The other end of the road bears down behind him. Bulldozers wait to fill the small valley where his tent is staked so developers can complete the road.

Mr. Shbeeb, like many other Palestinians who live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, faces losing his home to expanding Jewish settlements.

Israel, after capturing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, began subsidizing programs for Jewish settlers to move to the occupied territories. Many Israelis view a permanent hold on the West Bank as central to the protection of their state.

``I have told them they can demolish my tent, but I will not move,'' says Shbeeb, who relocated here when his family was removed from its homeland near Beersheba, Israel, after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The 1993 Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles, which created Palestinian self-rule areas in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Jericho, was vague on the status of Jewish settlements for the five-year interim period.

Jewish settlements in Gaza were already unified in a relatively well-defined enclave before the Palestine Liberation Organization took control of Arab areas there last summer. But in the West Bank, home to about 800,000 Palestinians, Jewish settlements are scattered among Arab villages, with the open space in between still claimed by both sides for future development.

The next step in implementing the Israeli-PLO accord calls for moving Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers before Palestinian elections take place in the West Bank. But little progress has been made on the issue in recent talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin indicates that he intends for Israel to retain the bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem and a band of settlements to the northwest of the city, as well as several smaller strategic enclaves.

Shbeeb's family rents from Arab landowners in the large Arab village of Abu Dis, which sits in the shadow of Maale Adumim - the largest Jewish settlement outside Jerusalem with 18,000 residents. One thousand new units are being built this year.

Since the Israeli-PLO accord was signed, Maale Adumim and other similar Jewish settlements on the West Bank continue to grow despite United Nations resolutions and Geneva conventions governing occupied territories.

On Jan. 17, Israel's Cabinet approved building plans in Maale Adumim and a nearby settlement that between them will house about 25,000 additional people.

``There can never be peace when they continue taking our land,'' says Mohammed Al-Hersh, another Palestinian fighting to save his home that has been here twice as long as the Jewish settlement.

The issue has been much the same for centuries. Arabs who have farmed Palestinian land for many generations say Jews have no right to evict them. The Jews say the land is theirs, claiming a Jewish state existed in Palestine during Biblical days.

WHEN the Labor Party ousted the right-wing Likud Party in the 1992 election, Rabin inherited a legacy of rampant growth in West Bank settlements that had begun with Menachem Begin's Likud victory in 1977. In the 15 years of mainly Likud rule, the West Bank settlers grew from about 4,000 in 1977 to 120,000 in 1992.

Today, an estimated 140,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and about 170,000 settlers reside in ``Arab'' East Jerusalem. About 160,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem.

Rabin came to power on a platform that vowed to prevent new settlements, while providing for a measure of natural growth of present settlements.

The 1993 accord left the future of the settlements to be worked out in final status talks due to begin in May 1996. Although Rabin had already decided to halt the growth of settlements, since his 1992 election the settler population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has jumped 25 percent - from 112,000 to 140,000.

Even Rabin's undertaking in November last year to halt government funds for settler expansion has been flouted by his colleagues.

In its latest issue, the authoritative biweekly Jerusalem Report said that Rabin has lost control of the expansion and development of settlements.

Rabin, Israeli officials say, is convinced by the powerful military argument that the redeployment of Israeli troops from Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, as required by the 1993 Israel-PLO peace accord, is irreconcilable with maintaining the security of Israeli settlers on the West Bank and the security of Israel itself.

Following the Jan. 22 suicide bombing by Islamic militants near Tel Aviv that left 21 Israelis dead, Rabin proposed that Israel erect a barrier between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Rabin said it was impossible for Israelis and Arabs to coexist without a physical barrier between them.

Two Israeli Cabinet committees are studying the proposal and will report their findings by the end of March in what appears to be a bid by Rabin to test Israeli public opinion for the idea of a fully fledged Palestinian state.

``It seems that Rabin is trying to use the attraction of some undefined separation to sweeten the pill of a Palestinian state,'' a Western diplomat says.

Palestinian leaders, angered over Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip following the January bombing, say a barrier would change the map for final status settlement of the territories.

``We say `yes' to political separation, meaning the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel,'' said PLO spokesman Ahmed Tibi, after Rabin requested the separation. ``But all other steps are closure and siege, it will only increase violence and terror and weaken the Palestinian Authority.''

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