In crisis, Israel rallies behind settlers

This week, amid renewed US demands that Israel freeze the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon resolutely told his cabinet that he would not even discuss the matter until the elections in November 2003.

He is not alone in this stand. Most Israelis, according to recent polls, believe that now is not the time for any such compromise on settlements. Settlers, meanwhile, are busy saying "we told you so."

"The only way to have security is through force," says Michael Bukchin, a resident of the Jewish settlement Yitzhar, three miles from Nablus. "Force and facts on the ground. It has taken a long time to convince the people of Israel of this. Luckily [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat helped us get that message across."

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Mr. Bukchin was born in Tel Aviv and became Orthodox later in life. He has a master's degree in human resource management from Columbia University in New York, six young children, a long gray beard, and a love of fast motorcycles. He moved to the West Bank 11 years ago because, he says, he was "sick of hectic modern society" and looking for "some clean country living." Ideology, of course, also played a part. "This is my land. Why shouldn't I live here?" he asks. The last vacation he took was to the Gaza Strip. "I like the beach there," he says and grins.

There are some 210,000 Jewish settlers living in 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – areas captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt in the 1967 war. Some of the settlers – including many recent immigrants from Russia – moved here for the subsidized low-cost housing and have indicated they would leave if offered financial compensation. But about two-thirds, the so-called ideological group, live here out of a conviction that it is their obligation to protect Israel's historic and biblical right to the "Greater Land of Israel."

'Facts on ground'

By settling in scattered outposts, cities, and villages among the approximate 3.3 million Palestinians in the occupied territories – a move that has been either encouraged or tolerated by every Israeli government since 1967 – the settlers have created "facts on the ground" and succeeded in becoming a serious obstacle to creating a geographically contiguous future Palestinian state.

"The Bible says this is our homeland. This is my birthright. If not here, where else can I live?" asks Bukchin. "I have no other place. Every other place I go, you kill me, you murder me, you burn me. We have to do what we have to do. We have to stay here, and we have to fight for what we believe in. Especially when we know it's right."

Nestled into the Samarian mountains, and overlooking scattered Palestinian villages on every side, Yitzhar consists of 90 family homes, two kindergartens, two synagogues, a grocery store, a small yeshiva, one paved road, and barracks for the small unit of soldiers stationed there to protect the residents. Armored school buses cart the older children to classes in a nearby, larger settlement. Few outsiders come to visit. A new cemetery just outside the iron gates of the entrance contains three fresh graves of residents, all killed by Palestinian gunmen.

"We don't have a fence around Yitzhar, and I feel secure partly because of that," Bukchin says. "When you put up a fence, you are telling the Arabs they can come up to the fence. But when you don't have a fence, you are claiming that everything is forbidden for them."

If he sees an Arab "closer than we want them to come," he warns, "we give them signals." Bukchin, like almost every single adult resident in Yitzhar, has a gun license.

The only way to reach peace, he adds, is to beat the other side.

"We need to be strong and make sure they know they will pay dearly for Jewish blood." The US, he notes, already knows this rule. "That's the only way the US responded to the twin towers attack. That is the natural way," he says. The recent incursions into the West Bank, says Bukchin, were "not enough. We needed to stay there. Get everybody. Get all the weapons."

Bukchin says he knows the time could come when settlement evacuations will return to the government's agenda – but he believes that moment recedes with every passing day of violence. "Things will get worse before they get better," he says. "Dictators," he explains, referring to Mr. Arafat, "never have enough. Look at Hitler." Fifteen new families have moved into Yitzhar since the September 2001 start of the current intifada.

In 1999, at the high point of peace talks between then Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat, the government decided, as a sign of good will, to evacuate a few of the smallest settlements.

The test case was Ma'on Farms, south of Hebron, where 30 people had erected trailer homes. It took three weeks and close to 5,000 police and soldiers to drag those settlers off the site. Four months later, they had all returned.

If, some day, soldiers come to evict him, Bukchin says, he will resist, but not shoot.

"Spilling Jewish blood is not a thing that is done," he says.

If eventually forced away – he would emigrate.

"If a Jewish government would betray us like that, I would not want a part of that country," he says. He would, he concludes, move to a log cabin community in Oregon.

Another view

Ahuva Shilo lives in the settlement Ma'ale Shomron, an eight-minute drive from the Israeli city of Kfar Saba, on the coast north of Tel Aviv.

Although a very different kind of settler, she, however, like Bukchin, believes the majority of Israelis have come around to sympathizing with her ideals and that no one will come to evict her anytime soon.

A secular woman with spiky red hair and shiny gray nail polish, Ms. Shilo grew up in the left-wing movement.

In her 20s, partly as a consequence of meeting her husband, a right-winger, she became convinced that it was her duty to help settle the "Greater Land of Israel." She soon moved from Tel Aviv to a small outpost in the West Bank. She lived in a trailer home and packed a gun. Otherwise, she maintains, her lifestyle remained much the same – with frequent trips into nearby Tel Aviv to go to the movies, shop, or meet up with friends in cafes. Those friends would not come to the settlement to see her. "I would not apologize or feel embarrassed," she says. "But it was hard."

Closing the gates

A month ago, Ma'ale Shomron, like many Jewish settlements, decided not to let in any Arabs. Shilo says her Arab gardener, who had been working for her for 18 years, cried. "He asked me how he was going to support his family," she says. "I cried too, but I told him he needed to ask Arafat about that."

The intifada has changed relationships between Israelis, too.

"My father was a radical left-winger," she attests. "So were most of my friends, and they thought I was a traitor, and they demonstrated against my ideals. I was upset, but I had convictions."

Today, she says, those voices of protest have been quelled. "Now, suddenly, they understand me better. They know that if I were not sitting here, they would be less protected. I am here for us all."

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