Another Victim of Mosque Attack: The Standing of Jewish Settlers

Palestinian demands that settlements be dismantled quickly now carry new weight

JEWISH settler Baruch Goldstein may have hoped he was killing the Middle East peace process along with the dozens of Palestinian worshipers he mowed down in a Hebron mosque last Friday. But instead, as shock at the massacre subsides, it seems that he may have dealt a worse blow to his fellow settlers.

Renewed Palestinian demands that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip be dismantled quickly now carry special weight. The settlers' standing in the eyes of the Israeli public and government has plunged to a new low. And the threat of Palestinian revenge attacks has made settlers more fearful than ever for their personal safety.

``I feel uneasy,'' says Bruce Brill, an American immigrant living in this isolated Jewish settlement on a hilltop south of Bethlehem, as he listens to gunfire echoing around the valley on Saturday. ``I don't know what will happen in the future, but it worries me.'' The massacre, in which at least 40 Palestinians were killed, ``might very well have the opposite effect to what he [Goldstein] intended,'' Mr. Brill adds.

``There is no doubt that this is a moral and political tragedy for us,'' says settler leader Israel Harel. ``Political because now our stock has gone down within the Jewish public, and we will have to deal with that.''

The carnage thrust the settlers to the center of the diplomatic stage, too, as United States President Clinton called Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to Washington to conclude their negotiations quickly on limited Palestinian autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho.

``Any talks must start with settlers and settlements and ways to evacuate them,'' says Faisal Husseini, the top Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official in Jerusalem. ``When Israeli forces withdraw from Gaza, Israeli settlers must go with them.''

Under the framework peace accord negotiated with Israel last year in Oslo, the PLO had agreed to postpone discussion of the settlers' future until negotiations over the final status of the occupied territories - to be decided in five years' time. That stance is now in question.

Though the Israeli government seems unlikely to agree to Dr. Husseini's demands, after repeatedly promising that no settlements at all would be removed during the autonomy period, senior officials are no longer hiding their hostility toward settlers.

``It was not the killer who was a psychopath, it was the ideology that drove him,'' says Ephraim Sneh, a leading Labor Party member of the Knesset (parliament).

And ordinary Israelis too have been almost as shocked by reactions to the massacre by some settlers as by the incident itself.

``I bless his memory,'' says Edoardo Recanati, another Tekoa resident, of Goldstein. ``I am envious of his courage. This is a war, and you do not make an omelet without breaking eggs.''

That kind of praise for a mass murderer has earned all the settlers, moderate and extreme, an even worse reputation than they already had. Marking the Jewish holiday of Purim over the weekend -

traditionally celebrated in fancy dress - Brill said he planned to wear ``a yarmulke and horns, to dress as the devil, because that is the way the public sees us.''

Leaders of the official settler movement, who were quick to condemn Goldstein, are clearly worried that they will be tarred with the same brush. ``It is not fair to put us all in one box,'' settler spokesman Shai Bazak says. ``But we have a political problem, and it is going to be hard,'' he adds.

The difficulties will not only be political, either. Palestinians from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat on down are predicting violent acts of revenge against settlers. ``The existence of settlements will lead to violence from us and from them,'' says Saleh Badr, a Palestinian teacher in Hebron. ``It is useless to make peace while settlers are walking around here with weapons.''

The prospect of stepped-up attacks has put Tekoa residents into what Brill calls ``freeze mode.''

``Here, at this stage, people have frozen for the time being,'' he said. ``They have not decided whether to fight or flee.''

ELSEWHERE, less ideologically motivated settlers have had enough. ``We came here to live a better life,'' says Eli Cohen, who built his house 13 years ago in Ariel, one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank. ``Now we are putting our lives in danger, so it's the end of this path.''

Mr. Cohen has organized a petition to the government, asking for compensation for settlers who want to return to Israel and who cannot sell their homes. ``We want the government to give us the opportunity to come down with dignity,'' he explains.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has said he does not want to encourage an exodus of settlers at this stage by offering compensation. But Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has publicly questioned the wisdom of maintaining small and isolated settlements, and his doubts were echoed by the liberal daily Haaretz in its editorial yesterday.

In the wake of the massacre, the editorial said, ``If Jerusalem thought that Israel would be able to guarantee the continued existence of the settlements ... in the permanent [peace] arrangement, there is no longer any basis for this expectation.

``It is also most probable,'' the influential paper went on, ``that Rabin will be unable to keep his promise that no settlements will be uprooted during the interim period.''

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