Israeli settlers prepare for worst

As prospects for Mideast peace retreat, settlers face the future with foreboding and firearms.

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As the Middle East hangs between war and peace, one group of combatants in the regional conflict is gloomily convinced that the balance can tip only one way - toward more violence.

"This will not be good. It is just the beginning," worries Mark Probizor, security chief for this red-roofed Israeli settlement perched on a West Bank hilltop overlooking Palestinian olive groves. "People here are very apprehensive of what is going to be."

Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live at the flashpoint of the three weeks of violence that has killed 107 people, almost all of them Palestinians.

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One of those victims was a settler, Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, killed by Palestinians as he approached a Jewish holy site in the nearby town of Nablus. And settlers have come under fire from Palestinian gunmen repeatedly in recent weeks. In other clashes, armed settlers are believed to have killed two Palestinian men, and to have ambushed and burned Palestinian cars.

The large majority of the 225,000 settlers now living in suburban-style villas in the West Bank and Gaza - which is illegal under international law - chose their homes because they were cheap and convenient to their jobs in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

But the smaller and more remote settlements, such as Shiloh - built on what is believed to be the site of the first Jewish tabernacle - have been peopled by more ideologically motivated Israelis expressing their attachment to the biblical land of Israel.

Armed and wary

Most of them are armed, with M-16 or Uzi rifles slung over their shoulders, or pistols stuffed into their belts.

Even so, the last three weeks of violence has made many of them reluctant to venture beyond the wire fences ringing their hilltop communities.

"When you leave your house, you don't really know what is going to happen," explains Sara Gelbard, an English-born settler who drives an ambulance in the settlement of Elon Moreh, overlooking Nablus.

"People were used to rock throwing [by Palestinian youths], but shooting is a different ballgame, and we are not prepared to risk our lives."

Ms. Gelbard sees only more violence ahead. "I don't know if things are going in the direction of a big war, but there is no way we can make peace with people thirsting for our blood," she says.

More likely than a big war, say Israeli officials, is a freeze on the peace process where it is now, well short of the comprehensive deal that would secure an agreement on the final status of Jerusalem and the occupied territories. Officials say they are already drawing up plans for "separation" between Israel and the Palestinians - a prospect that has the settlers worried.

Though Israel is unlikely to abandon any settlements to Palestinian rule, separation would almost certainly mean fewer Israeli Army patrols near the settlements, and no patrols off the main roads.

This, settlers fear, would give Palestinian gunmen a freer hand. "There would be a higher number of tripwire situations - someone takes a potshot and then what happens?" asks Shiloh resident Israel Medad.

Under peace proposals that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made at the Camp David negotiations three months ago, the major suburban settlements would have been annexed to Israel, while the remote ones would have found themselves in Palestinian-controlled territory. Many settlers, fearing for their future under Palestinian rule, would have left, they say.

But without a final peace agreement, the settlers' presence is likely to continue to provoke Palestinian attacks.

"The Army should have a strong hand," urges Gelbard. "But to do what it takes would put the Army in a tricky political situation," she acknowledges.

Should the settlers lose faith in the Army's ability to defend them after separation, warns Mr. Medad, "all hell could break loose, because we will feel that we are responsible for ourselves."

A coming war?

Some settlers appear almost to relish such a prospect. Yaacov Hayman, a luxuriantly bearded American-born resident of the hard-line settlement of Itamar, is quite matter of fact about the mayhem he foresees.

"There comes a time when you say that if I want to live in peace, I have to make war," Mr. Hayman says.

"We cannot live with the Arabs ... and though we are not looking for war, I don't see any other way to stability here. In the next war, we will have to do what we did not do in 1967, drive them out, including the Israeli Arabs" who live within Israeli borders.

One of Hayman's neighbors, who identified himself only by his first name, Alon, sounds an equally bellicose note. "There's going to be a war, and there will be a hard core [of settlers] who will fight to the end," he says, as gunfire echoes in the valley below.

Not all the settlers are so apocalyptic, but they are at least cautious. "Night time is bad," says Mr. Probizor, whose job as Shiloh's security chief takes him out at all hours. "At night I drive around with my flak jacket on."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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