For idealistic settlers, a price

At least 17 Israeli settlers have been killed in the fighting of the past six months, group says.

Each school day morning, just after Sheine Berlin's kids board their armored bus, she finds her apprehension so suffocating she can hardly breathe.

If there are no sirens, no "big booms" in the minutes between 7 and 7:30 a.m., she figures they have reached the relative safety of their schools. Then she gets on with her day until midafternoon, when she stands at the kitchen window and awaits the children's return.

Mrs. Berlin lives in Carmei Tzur, an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian West Bank. The residents of this hilltop enclave of small homes and big families have become "frontline soldiers" - in the phrase of Berlin's friend Nurit Rashi - during a half-year of low-intensity, high-anxiety conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

There are roughly 145 Israeli settlements scattered throughout the West Bank and Gaza, not including what Israelis call suburbs of Jerusalem. The total population includes about 200,000 settlers.

The stresses of the six-month-old Palestinian intifada are causing some settlers to ponder a return to Israel proper and other Israelis to put off a decision to take up settlement life.

But many settlers say they are more determined than ever to stick it out.

"I don't know anyone having second thoughts about staying in Carmei Tzur," says Mrs. Rashi, a nine-year resident who is on maternity leave from a job selling Jewish antiques. "Not even in the slightest."

The battleground Carmei Tzur settlers must traverse is Route 60, an Israeli-built highway that is their main conduit to other Jewish communities in the region and to Jerusalem. The settlers cope with the fear of roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, rocks flung at windshields, and in some cases, sniper fire from their hostile neighbors - the Palestinians who consider them usurpers and occupiers of land that is rightfully theirs.

The price of staying is a lifestyle that has become more fearful, on the one hand, and more brutish, more kill-or-be-killed, on the other. On Tuesday, as this reporter drove north on Route 60, three cars heading south suddenly veered off the highway and stopped.

Three men emerged from the cars, all armed, and ran across the road. Their yarmulkes, their ready weapons, and the plastic, rock-resistant windows of their vehicles identified them as settlers. They were pursuing men who had flung a large rock at their cars.

As the rock-throwers fled down the hillside, the settlers took aim and repeatedly fired after them, in an apparent attempt to kill their attackers.

A carpenter, who would only give his first name, Moshe, sat in one of the stopped cars, pondering the situation in evident disgust. "The army does nothing; the police do nothing - they are afraid of opinion," he said.

"They threw a rock like this," Moshe continued, holding his hands about 10 inches apart and shaking his head. "The Arabs are crazy," he asserted, an assault rifle resting between his legs.

As Israeli soldiers and police approached to investigate, the settlers got back in their cars.

"Moshe," said the carpenter's companion, after seeing a reporter, "don't say anything. Nothing at all." Then they continued their commute home.

The settlers seem to have missed their mark, since no injuries or deaths were reported as a result of this incident. But the same day yielded news reports of a settler being shot in the leg while driving near the West Bank town of Nablus, and of a settler firing on and wounding a Palestinian teenager throwing stones.

At least 17 settlers have been killed since the intifada began late last September, according to Yehudit Tayar, spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria and Gaza. The private Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group reports that settlers have killed at least seven Palestinians during the same period. Overall, at least 426 people have been killed, including 355 Palestinians, 52 Israeli Jews, and 19 others.

The deaths of fellow settlers weigh heavily on the mind of Carmei Tzur resident Rachel Ofer, particularly that of Shmuel Gillis, a widely admired physician who was gunned down while driving home to the settlement on Feb. 1. "He was a great doctor and a great person and a close friend of ours," she says.

A doctoral candidate in literature, Mrs. Ofer is now the reluctant owner of a flak jacket - purchased to accommodate her in-laws' demand that she and her husband "do something" to protect themselves. She must weigh seemingly innocuous things - such as attending a lecture in Jerusalem 40 minutes away - against the risk of a violent encounter on the road.

Like her friends Berlin and Rashi, she tells her children not to sit together on the school bus, to minimize the odds of more than one being injured or killed by a roadside bomb.

But none of these measures seem to translate into a desire to leave Carmei Tzur. "Our kids were born here," Ofer says. "We don't feel we can leave."

"Despite all the hardships," adds Berlin, "it's a wonderful place where everyone cares about each other." It's easy to see how life in Carmei Tzur - nearly 100 families encircled by fences and barbed wire - would engender a strong sense of community.

But their insistence on staying put also reflects a commitment to the larger goals that drive the settlement movement: Jewish claims to the land of the Bible, and the nationalistic belief that Israel will never gain security by ceding land to Arabs - only by holding onto it and, if possible, acquiring more.

Still, these notions don't have universal appeal in this time of strife. Benny Kashriel, the mayor of the largest West Bank settlement, Maale Adumim, says "fewer people are moving into settlements in Judea and Samaria," the biblical names that many Israelis use to refer to the West Bank.

A leftist member of the Israeli parliament, Mossi Raz, has compiled statistics showing that housing construction in the settlements outpaced purchases at a rate of nearly 2 to 1 last year. Only 106 homes in settlements were sold in the last three months of 2000, a 50 percent drop-off compared with the rest of the year, according to the Raz research.

Even so, Israeli officials have partially approved the construction of nearly 3,000 new homes at Har Homa, a settlement that Israel considers a suburb of Jerusalem. Because Har Homa is built on land seized by force - during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - it and other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are considered illegal under international law.

At a settlement called Dolev near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, a high school religion teacher named Rachel Gvirtzman is awaiting the summer moving season to see what the conflict will have wrought.

"We are not sure we will get new people," she says, "but we are hoping not many will leave. People are talking about it, especially the young couples."

Like all of the settlers interviewed, she expresses hope - not conviction - that the new government of Ariel Sharon will bring improvements in the security situation. But several of them also say that the government, in part because of US pressure, restrains the Israeli military from taking a number of stern measures that would enhance their security.

The Israeli military and police - in jeeps, armored personnel carriers, and lookout posts - blanket parts of Route 60. Israeli restrictions also prevent much Palestinian traffic from using the road, but these efforts are insufficient in settlers' eyes. At least until Mr. Sharon's election, their slogan was "Let the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] win."

Mrs. Gvirtzman inquires about the situation in the Palestinian villages near Dolev, where Israeli blockades have made it difficult or impossible for her neighbors to work, eat properly, or receive emergency medical care. "We didn't bring the situation on them," she says, referring to the intifada.

"I don't like it," she says. "I want them to live in peace and I want to live in peace, too. But the situation is in a circle right now from which you can't get out."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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