For decades, Israelis have built communities on Arab land seized in the "six-day" war of 1967.
Long the crux of Palestinian frustration, today these settlements are increasingly becoming the front line in the low-intensity war of attrition between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yesterday, assailants detonated a bomb near an armored Israeli school bus in the Gaza Strip, killing two adults and injuring nine others, including at least four children. The bus was shuttling between Gaza settlements - fortified communities that are home to some 6,000 Israelis who live amid more than a million Palestinians.
The attack was claimed by three different pro-Palestinian groups. The Palestinian Authority denied any responsibility but promised an investigation. At press time, Israel launched missile attacks on Palestinian targets in Gaza, apparently in retaliation.
Following a day of calm amid a two-month long wave of violence, the attack on the school bus will focus new attention on Israel's policy of support for the settlements. Because they are built on land seized by force, they are considered illegal under international law.
The Gaza settlements are the tip of an iceberg. In the West Bank, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, some 220,000 Israelis live in communities that range from hilltop hamlets encircled by guard posts and barbed wire to sprawling developments on the outskirts of Jerusalem that seem as if they were transplanted from southern California.
Israelis have been building these communities in earnest since the 1970s. In part, the motivation is religious. Some Israeli Jews say their biblical history gives them a right to claim such territory. Hard-line Israeli leaders have also wanted to create "facts on the ground" that would make it more difficult for Palestinians to demand the return of all lands seized in 1967.
At the same time, the Israelis have imposed bans or strict regulations on Palestinian construction. In some areas, Palestinians who have had their homes demolished for building them without permission, have only had to look across a valley to see building crews hard at work on a neighboring Israeli settlement.
The peace process hasn't moved Israeli governments to stop building settlements. Even Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who campaigned on a peace platform, has maintained the policies of earlier, hard-line governments.
According to Peace Now, an Israeli activist group, proposed budget allocations that will benefit settlers next year are more or less in keeping with previous outlays.
"What's the point of a process if there's no substance?" asks Hanan Ashrawi, an unofficial Palestinian spokeswoman. The need to defend small groups of Israeli settlers has also proved burdensome. "Look at what's happening in" the West Bank town of Hebron, Dr. Ashrawi adds. "You have 300 to 400 settlers that you plant in the heart of a Palestinian city, and then you place 30,000 to 40,000 Palestinians under curfew and ... it's open season on Palestinians."
Perhaps as a result of these frustrations, settlers and their communities have come under increasing attack in the current Palestinian uprising, or intifadah. The Jerusalem suburb of Gilo - a settlement built on land seized in 1967 - has repeatedly come under fire from Palestinians nearby, prompting Israeli reprisals that have included tank fire and missile attacks.
Other Israeli settlements have also come under fire, as have Israeli military outposts built to protect them. Last week, assailants killed a woman returning by car to her West Bank settlement.
It seems clear that Palestinian militants are targeting settlers. The Palestinian Authority, which this week called for the cessation of shooting from inside Palestinian-controlled areas, may be acquiescing in a strategy of attacks on settlers, whose communities are generally built on land over which Israel retains control. "[Palestinian officials] are being very smart," says Galia Golan, a political scientist and a leader of Peace Now. "They're not supporting terror inside Israel. They are attacking military and settler sites."
At the same time, settlers have also attacked Palestinians. In some cases the Israelis are acting defensively, but in other cases they appear to be provoking violence for its own sake or to demand the protection of Israeli forces.
Zimra Schlezinger, an English instructor who lives in a Gaza settlement and teaches at a school where some of the students attacked yesterday were heading, says she is outraged at Israeli officials. "They gave the Palestinians the means to do this to us," she says, referring to agreements that led to the establishment of armed Palestinian security forces. "It seems like they are working together against us."
But the settlers may be swimming against an increasingly strong tide. During the first month of this intifadah, says journalist Daniel Ben Simon, "Settlers enjoyed a reprieve, a sense of sympathy, but now we are going back to the view before the events, which is that ... Israel is fighting for the security of the settlers."
All settlements are not the same in Israeli eyes. Where nearly everyone says the country should defend areas such as Gilo, which Israel considers part of Jerusalem, settlements in Gaza and other areas may become untenable. If the human cost is too high - as it was during Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon - Israelis may demand withdrawal. "What I'm seeing now," says Mr. Ben Simon, "is the beginning of the same rhetoric that we saw in Lebanon: 'What do we need this for?' "
Monitor correspondent Nicole Gaouette and Grace McMillan contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society