Newly Confident Israeli Settlers Eager To Raise More Roofs in the West Bank
The recent sea change in Israeli politics is breathing new life into the right-wing settler movement, to the dismay of liberal Israelis and Palestinians who say it will jeopardize the Middle East peace process.Skip to next paragraph
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Settlers, emboldened by new hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, vow to triple their numbers in Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank.
Drastic expansion of settlements and the paving of wide, new highways will create "facts on the ground" that they say will block creation of an independent Palestine - which the previous Israeli government planned to allow in exchange for peace.
Few concrete steps have been taken yet, but settlers say they feel rejuvenated after four years of official neglect. They expect Mr. Netanyahu to lift the building ban imposed by the previous Labor government - in deference to the peace process - so they can snap up more land and build new settlements.
But the settlement debate in Israel is couched in harsh language, as if war was still being waged between the 140,000 settlers who live among 1.2 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Critics say fruition of settlers' dreams, or even a concerted attempt to fulfill them, will harm chances for peace.
"Settlements and building roads in the heart of the Palestinian entity is tantamount to a declaration of war," said Freih Abu Medein, the Palestinian justice minister. He predicted bloodshed if the building goes on unchecked.
But settlers pay this no mind and revel in their new status: "For four years we were the bad boys," says Yechiel Leiter, the director of a particularly vocal settler group, the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria (the Biblical terms for the West Bank) and Gaza.
Under the previous government, "We were blamed for everything: If there was crime, inflation, or terror, it was the settlers' fault," he says. "They demonized us to delegitimize us, but they failed."
In fact, on Tuesday, aides to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres disclosed that in 1995 Israel and the Palestinians secretly came to an understanding on a specific blueprint to turn as much as 90 percent of the West Bank into a Palestinian state.
In that plan, Israel would have kept about 10 percent of the area, leaving settlers perched in tiny enclaves surrounded by the Palestinian state. But the settlers need no longer be concerned.
"We're not the bad boys anymore," Mr. Leiter says, speaking in a strong American accent honed as a boy in Scranton, Penn. Between sentences, he takes off his pistol and leather holster and places them in his desk drawer. "We may not be heroes, but Netanyahu talks of us on the front line and in the heartland."
More than 140 spartan settlements now dot the West Bank. Most were thrown up overnight in the first years of the decade, causing violent scenes when Palestinian property owners rejected the outright expropriation of their land.
Stonings were commonplace, as were scuffles with police. But when the Labor government came to power in 1992, the settlers' worst enemy - in their eyes - became their own Israeli authorities. The US labeled the settlements an "obstacle to peace" and construction was frozen.
Hundreds of new housing units stand empty, as they have for four years, waiting for the government to lift the ban on settling militant Jews in occupied Arab lands.
New strategy: no bombast
Sensing their unpopularity among the majority of Israelis, the settlers have kept a low profile and only subtly pitched for Mr. Netanyahu in Israel's May election. That strategy has paid off. "In terms of making demands," Leiter says, "we learned that instead of making bombastic statements, it is better to get the job done on the ground. That's what counts."
And the settlers have found a willing partner in Netanyahu.