At first road-map stop: settlers

Israel had torn down 10 Jewish outposts by early Tuesday in an initial peace step.

When her father gave her the news, 10th-grader Shlomit Wasserteil beamed and hopped in glee.

Micky Wasserteil told Shlomit that their family would move Tuesday into a mobile home set on a West Bank hilltop to prevent the Israeli government from clearing the site of Israeli settlers.

"This is the land God gave us," explains Shlomit. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail, and she wears the long skirt and long sleeves that Orthodox Jews prefer. If the army were to drag her and her family out, "we'll come back."

One of her friends says that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is wrong to clear Jews from settlements that the Israeli government considers illegal, as he is required to do under a new US-backed peace plan. "Tomorrow he'll say someplace else, and then Jerusalem," she says, declining to give her name.

Here and elsewhere in the West Bank, Israeli settlers vow to repopulate cleared hilltops and settle others anew as fast as the government moves against them. For now, they insist, they will avoid violent confrontation, and certainly civil war.

But should the government take any action to clear larger, more populated settlements, there can be no guarantees of nonviolence, says Arie Bachrach, who sits on the local council of the settlement of Beit El, which is about a mile from the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Beit El, home to nearly 1,000 families, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; the four mobile homes that make up the "outpost" of Beit El Mishrach, or East Beit El, have only been in place for about two years.

Settler leaders "cannot take responsibility," says Mr. Bachrach, for the 250,000 Israeli Jews who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Confrontation between settlers and the authorities "is not out of the question," he says.

Israeli media reports say the government has decided to remove 15 outposts, including Beit El Mishrach, in an initial fulfillment of its obligations to a US-backed road map toward peace. This initiative, which Israel has conditionally accepted, demands that it roll back the settlement expansion that has occurred since Sharon took power in March 2001.

Although the settlers are opposed to the dismantling of any settlements, a recent poll suggests that most Israelis are more comfortable with the policy. According to an annual opinion survey sponsored by Tel Aviv University, 59 percent of Israelis are willing to abandon all but large blocs of settlements, up from 50 percent a year ago.

Palestinian officials have said that removing a dozen or so outposts - most of them uninhabited - is not a convincing gesture. The population of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza - excluding East Jerusalem -- has roughly doubled over the past 10 years. The regional and local councils that administer the settlements exercise authority over nearly 42 percent of the West Bank, according to the Israeli human rights group B'tselem.

But establishing outposts is the way big settlements are born; many of the leaders of Beit El can remember when it, too, amounted to a few mobile homes on a hilltop. Today it has the feel of a busy suburb, with shopping centers, playgrounds, and schools.

The Israeli watchdog group Peace Now estimates that settlers have created about 60 outposts in a little more than two years.

In the outpost-turned-settlement of Amona, 20-something Yehuda Yifrah sits cross-legged on the floor of his four-room mobile home and explains what drives his urge to settle.

The conflict with the Palestinians "is against the ability of Jews to be Jews, to live out Jewish identity."

"Israeli society," he continues, "has to understand that existing here is something you have to fight for, because there will always be people who don't accept our existence."

Born in Beit El, he came to Amona to be part of a younger community, one with a strong identification with the land that he associates with the early days of the Zionist movement. During a tour of Amona - a clutch of mobile homes that house 24 families - he points with pride to a vineyard, an olive grove, and a herd of goats that he says are maintained by settlers themselves, not by hired Palestinian help.

If Jews are strong and determined enough and if they maintain their hold on their Biblical lands, Mr. Yifrah says, the other side will give up. He criticizes the idea of a two-state solution - Israel and Palestine side by side in the Holy Land, as President Bush imagines - because he says it will lead to an exclusively Palestinian state and a second state that eventually contains a majority of Palestinians.

"The solution of the Left is just an abandonment of the state of Israel," he says. So Yifrah holds firm to his vision of a Jewish state, one that will maintain its hold over the West Bank and one that removes from its population - by sending them to Jordan - Palestinians "who can't live in peace."

Back in Beit El Mishrach, settler David Chaouat prepares for the arrival of Israeli soldiers. He organizes the work of Shlomit and her classmates, who are cleaning up the mobile homes and putting up banners saying "the Jewish nation lives."

He concedes that there is no logical reason to live on a dusty desert hilltop. But Jews don't have any other territory, he says. "When we work this land," he adds, "we find the remains of our ancestors."

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