Israel's ever-on-the-move settlers

Cheap homes lure families to West Bank, though they might have to move again as peace talks heat up.

Sharon Dahan and his wife, Laela, are moving again.

Last summer, the young couple moved from Israel proper to this West Bank settlement near Hebron because they had some friends here, and the rent on their mobile home was cheap. Now, one baby boy and a cageful of parakeets later, they're moving to a real house up the road, putting down roots with 75 families who make their home here.

If Mr. Dahan seems less than driven by the twin ideologies of boosting Israel's security and reclaiming the biblical promised land, that's because he's not. He came primarily for economic reasons. Three- and four-bedroom homes here cost $40,000 - a steal in a country where new homes in desirable areas are usually more expensive than those in America.

But the Dahans may find themselves on the move yet again in the near future - depending on how the Israeli-Palestinian peace process goes forward.

In two weeks, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will tell Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak whether he will insist on implementation of the Wye River accords signed last October. To do that, Mr. Barak would have to turn over 11 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control. Settlements such as Adora may find themselves islands in a sea of Palestinian territory - a situation that settlers and Barak himself view as dangerous. It's possible that the Israeli government may dismantle such isolated settlements, offering their residents compensation and forcing them to move.

Barak wants Mr. Arafat to forestall any land trades until a final peace deal, a postponement Arafat's aides say he will refuse.

Palestinians, meanwhile, at the village of Tarkumiye in the valley below Adora wait to come under the control of their own police force instead of the Israeli Army, and they see every new house springing up on the hill nearby as a step away from peace.

Unruffled settlers

Yet the Dahans seem remarkably unruffled by the renewed peace negotiations. But they do display an uncomfortable inevitability stemming from the fact that even they think peace with the Palestinians is a necessity.

"Barak must implement the agreements. There's no alternative," said Dahan, an electrician with a long, dark ponytail, as he pushed aside some packing materials and boxes. Dahan himself voted for the Labor Party leader in May, even though he knew Barak was more willing to make land-for-peace trade-offs than his predecessor, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"I'm usually right wing, but even right-wingers today think you have to come to some kind of a solution," he says.

With Barak's government a few weeks old, there is evidence that he is quickly beginning to tighten the tap on incoming settlers - after years of heavy government subsidies for development in the settlements.

On Wednesday, the ministry of trade and industry said it would freeze its investment in the settlements, rejecting an appeal by the settlers' main lobbying group. Days earlier, Israeli security forces removed a Jewish settlers' camp from a West Bank hilltop in the first such eviction since Barak's election, keeping his pledge not to allow any new settlements.

The moves are Barak's message to both the settlers and the Palestinians that he will end preferential treatment for the settlements. It also signals the end of the laissez faire building policy of Mr. Netanyahu, who allowed about 20 new settlement outposts to be plunked on empty hilltops in recent months.

Settlers say that all the new satellites - some a few miles away from the older settlements - are neighborhoods within the existing boundaries of the settlements. But the Israeli group Peace Now, as well as a US State Department team that tracks settlement growth, both say that many of the new posts seem strategically placed to prevent territorial continuity among Arab villages, frustrating attempts to transfer large portions of the West Bank to Palestinian control.

A senior official in Barak's office would not say whether those new settlements will be removed. But settlement growth will be curtailed, he said, and building plans that Netanyahu had signed on to might be rescinded.

"This government will act very firmly against any unlawful action. We will review all settlement projects approved by the previous government and those which have not been started yet. Maybe we'll cancel them," says the official, who asked not to be named.

Both Labor and the rightist Likud Party once vigorously supported the settlements as a national interest. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, however, withheld funds when he came to power in 1992, but Netanyahu open the floodgates once again in 1996. Now, many in Barak's government want to remove the West Bank and Gaza Strip from a list of areas that get tax breaks and other benefits because they are in outlying or "hardship" areas that are to be considered development priorities.

Avoiding the important question

But this on-again, off-again debate over funding seems to some analysts to be a symptom of midterm thinking: It avoids the more important question about what to do with scores of settlements on territory Palestinians see as the heartland of their would-be state.

"In the Israeli public, there is no serious discourse on the issue of settlements," says Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "No one considers seriously what we have to do about the settlements. To achieve peace, all the settlements cannot remain there. Israel has to decide which settlements will be moved, but it seems like every Israeli government is trying to satisfy everybody."

Barak has been mum about what his blueprint for the West Bank will be, but general ideas of how to do it are consistent. Some settlements - especially those that are close to the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders - would be annexed to Israel. Areas with a lot of settlements would be linked together in blocks and connected, too. But others would have to be evacuated, unless Jewish settlers are willing to live under Palestinian sovereignty.

"Some settlements will be dismantled in the permanent status," said the Barak official, "and some will either move into blocks, or will stay under the control of the Palestinian Authority."

That is something Dahan says he's willing to consider. "But if I feel I can't go out in the evening to visit friends because it's too dangerous, I'm out of here," he says.

In Tarkumiye, the village down the road, the mayor sees no way for Adora to stay put. "If the settlers want peace, they must be removed from here," says Aziz Iss Raeib. "To us, the settlers are soldiers in civilian dress."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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