In West Bank, a 'Masada mind-set'

Israeli troops worry about armed extremists in the last two settlements.

When more than 5,000 Israeli troops arrive here and in nearby Sa-Nur Tuesday, they anticipate a more violent opposition to evacuation than in Gaza, including the possibility of being fired on by young extremists.

From Gaza's seaside settlements - the last of them evacuated Monday - to the hills of northern West Bank, more changes than topography. There is a clear difference in the types of protesters drawn to the two final enclaves to be evacuated in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.

There are Israeli extremists who say that they haven't made a strong enough statement yet about the morality of uprooting settlements, and some are driven by a "Masada mentality" - the desire to do something so extreme as to make that message unforgettable.

In AD 74, 1,000 Jewish zealots held off the Roman army in a mountaintop siege, before committing suicide.

"I lost faith. I don't believe in the government, the laws, the police, the army," says Eitan Felsenstein, who is from another West Bank settlement. He doesn't directly threaten violence, but says that they are planning "something serious."

Just how serious has become a major concern. According to various reports, some infiltrators holed up in the two settlements, which have far more agitators than original residents, are arming themselves with weapons.

Officials are hopeful that many will only want to put up a tough fight but most won't turn to bloodshed. "We prepare for the worst and hope for the best," says Superintendent Sharon Brown of the Israel Police, "but we are definitely preparing for the worst."

Physically, the mountainous settlements are harder for the army to close off. But ideologically, for settlers who only refer to this region by its biblical name, Samaria, this land is on an even higher ground. Jewish tradition holds that the patriarch Joseph is buried in nearby Nablus, and over the past three decades, some of the most ultranationalist settlers have been drawn to this area.

Since the late 1990s, the Israeli government has attempted to rein in vigilante settlements. In these, a group of young settlers would find an uninhabited peak, plant a flag and a few mobile homes on it, and declare it a new community. The activists were dubbed the "hilltop youth."

In the years since, some of the hilltop youth have become further radicalized. They tend to be second- and third-generation settlers, most of them children of the Gush Emunim, Hebrew for "Bloc of the Faithful," founded in the early 1970s. Although this religious-national group was viewed as radical in its day, with leaders pushing to strike roots all over the West Bank and Gaza, it maintained a close relationship with state institutions.

By comparison, says Prof. Ami Pedahzur, an expert on Israel's far right and a political scientist at the University of Haifa, many in the next generation are not serving in the army - either by religious exemptions or because some of them have profiles with Israel's security forces that kept them out.

As a result, many of the hilltop youth have eschewed their parent's patriotism. Their beliefs hold that every settlement sits on sacred ground, leaving no room for compromise.

"They wear biblical clothes, and there's some element of new age behavior there. You can see them walking with sheep and goats. They try to be close to nature," as if living in the ways of their forefathers, Mr. Pedahzur says, "but actually they're very extreme."

Most of these groups, says Pedahzur, have no centralized leadership structure. As such, fears of what could transpire here stem from the fact that even if more mature voices - such that of Aryeh Eldad, a far right-wing parliament member who is also camped out here - send out a message encouraging nonviolence, it might easily be ignored.

"We know that some of the boys up in the hills there are not following orders of the mainstream leadership," says Pedahzur, "and there are small cells of people that can try to push for a more militant attitude."

Still, he estimates, there is no widespread desire for another Massada. Pedahzur says it's likely that the swift evacuation of Gaza will weaken the resolve of some of the holdouts here, causing a "domino effect" that will let any rational person know that Israel's armed forces are more than capable of overcoming the holdouts. They number around 2,000, according to Maariv newspaper.

Why these settlements?

Why is Israel removing these four settlements?

Israel officials have long said that small, isolated settlements in the West Bank would be the first to go in any land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. These settlements were often attacked by Palestinian militants, and were seen by the government as places where it was hard to protect the Israeli civilian residents.

Will other settlements be removed?

There are no immediate plans to remove any other West Bank settlements, where about 240,000 settlers live. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said that other settlements might be removed at some point, but no more are planned now.

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