THE explosive controversy over the expansion of the West Bank settlement town of Efrat, five miles south of Jerusalem, to territory regarded by the neighboring Palestinian village of Al Khadar as its ancestral land demonstrates why the issue of settlements will impede the peace process until it is faced squarely and decisively.
That this dispute and the passionate demonstrations it sparked have taken place in this location of the West Bank illustrates the incompatibility of settlements and the peace process. Unlike Hebron, the areas around Efrat and Al Khadar do not attract the most ideological Israelis or Palestinians. Efrat residents have claimed they wish to live peacefully with local Palestinians; Al Khadar residents have supported PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's peace policies.
Efrat's settlers regard themselves as having returned to their Biblical home on land they acquired legally from the Israeli government. The hill where they want to expand their settlement reflects, to them, the organic growth of an existing community.
Residents of Al Khadar view Efrat's effort to build on a neighboring hill as a forcible takeover of land owned by Palestinian families for generations. They never recognized Israel's claim to unworked West Bank property as ``state lands'' and have regarded the settlements as unwelcome, illegal intrusions. The Palestinian protest to Efrat's expansion has received support from some Israeli Cabinet ministers and from private groups like Peace Now. Israeli West Bank expert Meron Benvenisti has called the 15-year-old policy initiated by the former Likud government, under which Israel took title to all unregistered, unworked West Bank territory, ``theft disguised by legal means.''
Residents of Efrat and Al Khadar have come up against two irreducible facts in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Two peoples claim the same land that must be apportioned by territorial compromise, not unilateral land grabs. As long as the settlement issue persists, it will impede the peace process. Fundamental differences must be addressed politically if peace is to be achieved.
Israeli settlements dot the West Bank, sometimes in the midst of heavy concentrations of Palestinians. About 40,000 cars belonging to settlers must pass through narrow roads in Palestinian villages. These two populations are closely intertwined yet fundamentally hostile. Their constant and inevitable encounters can only result in continuing tension and conflict.
This tension illustrates a key problem with the Declaration of Principles, which has served as the basis for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Under its terms, the fate of the settlements does not have to be negotiated until May 1996 while both parties implement and gain confidence from their interim accord.
How can confidence flourish if settlements continue to produce strife between Israelis and Palestinians, as in Efrat? Tensions challenge support for the peace process in mainstream Palestinian towns like Al Khadar and produce sharpened division among Israelis.
Israel and the Palestinians should take several steps. First, Israel should freeze all settlements and cease adding to their infrastructure so new obstacles to a resolution are not created while the parties pursue a peace agreement.
Second, Israel should financially assist settlers who want to move back within the recognized boundaries of Israel. Many settlers moved to the West Bank to take advantage of mortgage and tax incentives offered by the old Likud government in an effort to spur settlement. They would move back if they could do so without financial penalty. Since their moving from the West Bank would further the peace process, it is in the government's interest to aid them. Funds now used for building infrastructure in the West Bank could be reallocated for this purpose.
Third, Palestinians should increase Israeli confidence in the process by fully implementing their Oslo commitment to control violence and resolve all disputes at the negotiating table.
Finally, negotiations must move to determine the final status of the West Bank. Events like the Al Khadar-Efrat controversy indicate that the struggle over the settlements has jumped the negotiating schedule and is in full force. The only way to reduce conflict will be to define the line between the Israeli and Palestinian areas so that each will recognize the territory and authority of the other. Settlers in the Palestinian area will either have to accept Palestinian rule or, more likely, move to Israeli-controlled territory.
To avoid recurrences of the Al Khadar-Efrat dispute, or worse, the Hebron massacre, settlements must be addressed now. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.