CONFUSED and rudderless, Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank are in a state of shock following the deal between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) that offers their Palestinian neighbors limited self-rule.
But putting a brave face on the situation, most settlers appear ready to try to tough it out, in the hope that the accord will fall apart before their fate is sealed five years from now, when the final status of the territories is to be determined.
``It's like your world being turned upside down; it's like the heavens falling in,'' explains Israel Harel, editor of the settler magazine Nekuda. The autonomy agreement, he says ``was like a bomb that destroys everything that has gone before.''
If everything goes according to plan, Israel will withdraw its military government from the whole of the West Bank in 10 months, putting Palestinians in charge of all aspects of daily life except the settlements, which will remain Israel's responsibility.
That will change everything for the 120,000 Jewish residents, whether they moved to the West Bank out of a religious belief in their God-given right to settle all of the Land of Israel, or because mortgages there were cheaper than in Tel Aviv.
``Our daily life won't be good,'' worries Yigal Yom Tov, a mechanic sitting in his garage just outside the perimeter fence at a settlement named Karnei Shomron. ``We'll feel that control of things will not be in our hands any more.'' Deciding to live with it
Despite opposition leaders' efforts to rally protest demonstrations against Israel's accord with the PLO, most settlers seem resigned to it.
``Inside themselves, people don't believe that there is much they can do to change the situation,'' says Zvi Moses, a psychologist who has lived here for 10 years. ``The frustration level is very high.''
``To be frank,'' echoes Mr. Harel, ``once this accord has been signed and has the international support that it does, only time will tell. If the agreement proves itself, nobody will be able to overturn it.''
Instead, settler activists are concentrating their efforts on keeping their settlements together. ``I'm working hard to ensure Shiloh remains a viable, functioning community,'' says Batya Medad, a resident of the hilltop settlement founded on the spot where the Ark of the Covenant was once kept. ``I'm not going anywhere.''
Ms. Medad accepts, however, that the future is bound to hold surprises. Fingering the blue-and-white Israeli flag she has pinned to her breast and then torn in the Jewish sign of mourning, she acknowledges that ``how I will cope with radical change if it happens, I just don't know.''
For PLO leader Yasser Arafat, allowing the Jewish settlements to remain until the final status of the occupied territories is negotiated was a major concession. For Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin it was a way to avoid a wrenching and potentially explosive confrontation with the settlers.
But the Israeli government clearly hopes that life in the settlements, islands in the middle of an autonomous Palestinian entity, will become so difficult that their inhabitants will pack up and leave.
``The government certainly wants to dry us out, and there will be very great difficulties,'' predicts Rabbi Michael Brom, who runs the yeshiva in Shiloh, one of the most militantly ideological settlements in the West Bank. ``But they won't make people break and leave.''
``If people can overcome their psychological shock, I think that if they are determined they can continue to exist'' in the settlements, Harel says.
But not all settlers are as determined as their leaders. ``In the communities where cheap housing was the incentive, you'll find people who will take any alternative,'' Medad says.
Even the religious and political militants, she adds, are suffering from a lack of direction.
The head of the opposition Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, ``has really been a disappointment,'' Medad complains, ``and one reason I feel so back-to-the-wall is that I see no leadership at all.''
Given the vagueness of the Israeli-PLO accord, and the uncertainties that overshadow the next few months and years, none of the settlers are looking very far down the road. An unwelcome prospect
Few, for example, are prepared to contemplate the prospect that a growing number of Israelis seem now to take for granted - that a Palestinian state will emerge in the West Bank and Gaza by 1998.
``If Israel decides that we will be under Palestinian sovereignty, that means evacuation,'' says the psychologist, Mr. Moses.
Instead, he hopes that settlements such as Karnei Shomron, near the 1967 border, will be incorporated into Israel, within a newly drawn border.
In the meantime, both settlers and independent observers expect that while most Jewish residents of the territories will contain their frustration, some extremists will use violence.
``There are maybe 100 or 200 people ready to take up arms and fight,'' Moses says, ``but they don't have the support of the people.''
``Certain fringe groups will perhaps start thinking of desperate actions, such as calculated provocative violence against Palestinians,'' agrees Ehud Sprinzak, an expert in the Israeli extreme right.
``Most settlers want to be part of the nation of Israel, they are afraid to be cut off from the rest of society,'' he adds. ``And that is another reason for their weakness.''