Israel's 15-year effort to populate the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jewish settlers is showing signs of faltering, a victim of the six-month Palestinian intifadah (uprising). Despite new inducements for Israelis to relocate, a continuation of the uprising will jeopardize reaching the target population of 100,000 Jewish settlers, experts say. That number is thought by many settlers to be the critical mass needed to make the settlement process irreversible.
``Under such circumstances, there is no future for the settlements,'' Israeli journalist Danny Rubenstein says.
Once viewed as Israel's first line of defense against an Arab invasion, the 100-odd Israeli settlements - Jewish islands in an increasingly hostile sea of 1 million Arabs - have become a costly security liability.
Once viewed as Israel's newest frontier, the territories have seen the influx of Israelis slow to a trickle. Housing sales have declined ``drastically,'' one government source says.
Once viewed as pioneers in the tradition of Israel's founding fathers, Israel's 65,000 West Bank settlers (not counting Jews living in Arab East Jerusalem) are now troubled by an image problem created by recent acts of vigilantism and growing impatience in Israel with the high cost of subsidizing and protecting the settlements.
``During the uprising, the nature of Israel's security fears has changed,'' explains Mr. Rubenstein, who wrote a book on the settler movement Gush Emunim. ``Before, the idea was to keep the territories as a wall against the invasion of Arab tanks. Now the main fear is staying in the territories, because the Arabs living there pose the greater threat.''
Since the early 1970s, Israelis have relocated across the ``green line,'' into the territories, drawn by religious convictions or the lure of inexpensive suburban living. (The West Bank was occupied in 1967.) But since the start of the uprising, net growth is widely believed to have dwindled far below the 10,000 or so annual average of recent years.
If the uprising continues, many observers say, the result could almost certainly be a net outflow of population, and behind it, perhaps, a change in the government's traditional policy designed to nourish the settlement movement.
Two props undergirding the settlements movement have become wobbly since the start of the uprising.
First is the assumption that Palestinians had come to accept the Jewish presence in the West Bank. The existence of relatively normal economic relations between Arab inhabitants and Jewish settlers gave plausibility to the notion. But, as the intifadah has shown, just beneath the veneer of normality lie deep resentments over the encroachment of the settlements, built on land most of which, Palestinians say, was confiscated from Arabs in violation of international law.
``The settlers managed to avoid the ethical issue by pretending they had good relations with the Arabs and that the West Bank wasn't conquered territory,'' says Janet Aviad, a Hebrew University education professor who has been conducting a research project on Jewish settlements. ``The intifadah has exploded [those assumptions] altogether.''
The second prop shaken by the uprising is the assumption that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were capable of protecting the settlers in the territories. That notion has fallen victim to frequent stonings and, more recently, fire-bombings by Palestinians, that have left many settlers beset with acute security fears.
``Sure, I'm afraid,'' says one settler who, with his wife and four children, lives just several hundred yards from the nearest Arab village. ``I don't want to be the Abraham to my kids' Isaac,'' he adds using a biblical analogy to describe the possibility that the safety of his family could become the sacrifice required to remain living on the West Bank.
Another casualty of the deteriorating security situation is the still small but growing propensity toward vigilantism that has tarnished the image of the settlements movement.
A small recent incident in the settlement of Efrat, just north of Hebron, illustrates the problem.
Frustrated over the inability of the IDF to deal with a spate of firebomb attacks, a group of settlers, including several from outside Efrat, last week blocked the main Jerusalem-Hebron highway, nearly provoking a violent confrontation with a busload of Palestinians. Soldiers and town officials intervened in time, but not before the settlers had made a dent in Efrat's reputation as one of the most politically moderate West Bank settlements.
``Tear gas and bullets are not exactly the kind of thing to make people want to buy a house here,'' laments Efrat's soft-spoken city manager, Yossi Beck.
Far more worrisome, says Mr. Beck, is what growing security fears have done to foster political extremism, such as that advocated by Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach movement. Efratans say it was a small group of Kach extremists who organized the demonstration, against the wishes of Efrat's town fathers.
The worsening security situation ``gives Kach people very fertile ground for their activities,'' Beck says. ``I'm worried that if the situation continues, it will make it easier for them to do things like this more often.''
Another Efrat resident says that by serving as a safety valve for pent-up frustrations, last week's demonstration was actually a ``positive factor. Without the demonstration, people might have gone shooting,'' like five armed civilians, presumed to be settlers, who 15 days ago entered the Arab village of Shuyukh, near Hebron, wounding several Arabs and killing one.
``Almost none of the people here are Kach [members],'' says this Efratan. ``But they're starting to identify with Kach.''