Israel repositions stand on settlements

Barak said Tuesday it will dismantle 15 West Bank outposts, possibly

Tamar and Ayal Asraf came to live on this remote hilltop to put "a fact on the ground," in the lingo of Mideast politics. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is about to delete it.

The Asrafs, one of the first two couples to move here, say their Shuchonat HaYovel - or Jubilee Neighborhood - is simply a new division of the existing settlement of Eli. "We came here, first of all, for ideology - it's important to settle the mountain," says Mrs. Asraf, a mother of two who has filled one of the mobile homes with a pottery studio.

Such settlement efforts are attempts to introduce new realities on the ground to strengthen Israel's toehold in the West Bank. On Tuesday, however, Mr. Barak said that he would dismantle this and 14 other settlement outposts deemed illegal.

It's the first sign that the new Israeli leader, whose policy on settlement has until now been unclear, will not tolerate the do-it-yourself policy that prevailed under his right-wing predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. It also sets the stage for a possible tumultuous chapter in Israeli history, as many settlers are sure to resist being uprooted.

Asraf, committed to ceramics as well as to settling on the hills she views as Israel's heartland, says she won't use violence to fight eviction. "I can't imagine fighting my own soldiers or chaining my children to the house, the way people have in the past. I will find my own way to protest."

But other settlers are threatening to employ all means - from civil disobedience to outright force - to fight evacuation from their trailer homes perched on hilltops throughout the West Bank. At Yitzhar, an Israeli community near Nablus known as a stronghold of more militant settlers, activists say they expect to wage a battle to save every "caravan," as they are called here.

"Dismantling any house in one of the new settlements is like dismantling an entire community. Barak will be opening a new front from the inside," says Igal Amitai, the spokesman for Yitzhar.

The Israeli security establishment has been preparing for the eventuality of unruly and even belligerent opposition from settlers who are against any compromise on Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank and Gaza. A precedent for resistance to evacuation was set after the 1979 Camp David accords, when Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt. Israelis still say the sight of soldiers tearing residents away from the Sinai settlement of Yamit is one of the most turbulent chapters in their history.

Expectations are high that Israel is headed for another such tumultuous period as Barak tries to carve out a final peace deal.

Though Barak triumphed in elections in May on a mandate to resume peacemaking, how well his coalition government can stay afloat in the face of civil unrest remains to be seen. At least two parties in his patchwork coalition have shown themselves to be sympathetic to the settlers - the National Religious Party and the (Russian) Immigration Party - while a third, Shas, has been at odds with Barak over other internal issues.

Barak has to skate between this domestic balancing act and anger from the Palestinians, who say they cannot negotiate terms of a final peace deal while Israel allows settlements to expand.

Barak's dilemma over settlement vigilantism is part of the legacy he inherited from Mr. Netanyahu. The hawkish premier rarely gave out the permits to found new communities, instead taking a laissez faire stance towards the expansion of existing settlements.

Settlers often interpreted the situation as a license to build satellites - often miles and hilltops away from the existing settlements - with the hope of gaining all the land between the old and new. American officials note that some of the newer acquisitions appear strategically chosen to prevent the Palestinians from forming contiguous chunks of land in their effort to build a state.

Salah Tamari, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from Bethlehem, complains that the Israeli settlements in his area have constrained Palestinian growth there. "The dismantling of any settlement is positive, but the main issue is the illegality of all settlements. To categorize one as legal and one as illegal is wrong," says Mr. Tamari, who chairs the Palestinian legislature's Land and Settlement Committee.

Though Tamari says that Barak's move sends an encouraging message to Palestinians, he says it is nearly negated by the prime minister's signature on plans to add another 2,600 homes to existing settlements in the West Bank. Danny Yatom, Barak's chief of staff, said in a recent interview that the new government could not legally stop some of the building tenders set in motion by the Netanyahu regime.

Tamari says that "common sense, good faith, and political will" should override such particulars for the sake of the peace process. "On the one hand, Barak is dismantling 15 settlements, and on the other he is encouraging them to build new housing units in settlements. That is contradictory. We know Mr. Barak is dealing with the difficult situation on the domestic level he was left by Mr. Netanyahu, but he can't put our concerns on the back burner."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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