Israel eyes West Bank growth

More Israeli building, fresh Palestinian fighting may complicate efforts for peace talks.

Tucked into a remote cluster of hills is a rather rare species these days: a new Israeli settlement taking shape.

As advocates are keen to point out, there has been an Israeli presence here since 1982, including an army base and military prep school. Two decades ago, in 1986, Maskiot's plot of "state land" was given an approval to become a bona fide settlement.

For a smattering of reasons political or bureaucratic, it never happened, and Maskiot's existence was hardly known outside the 20 other small Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley. But last week, the Israeli defense ministry announced that it had authorized construction of 30 new homes here – for settlers who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip.

The decision confirmed a concern that some observers had about former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, which pulled 8,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip after Israel's 38-year-long occupation of the territory.

Skeptics wondered if Mr. Sharon would move many of the settlers from Gaza into the West Bank, a place which – in religious, historic, and strategic terms – Israel has always held in higher regard. Settler leaders in this region, in fact, claim that Sharon promised them he would relocate some of the Gaza evacuees here.

New push for peacemaking

Any move to allow new – or expand old – settlements in the West Bank could complicate efforts already under way to give Middle East peacemaking a fresh push.

On Thursday, in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarek, to discuss a potential deal on a prisoner release and restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, internecine Palestinian tensions appear to be worsening as kidnappings and shootings between armed gangs affiliated with Hamas and Fatah continued in Gaza and spilled into part of the West Bank.

Israel's Peace Now organization, a group that tracks Israeli settlement expansion, charged that any move to put Israelis in a new settlement over the Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 boundary) would be a mistake, and one which, like the settlements in Gaza, was likely to be removed in the long run.

"We're taking a place that was an abandoned military place and making it a civilian settlement," says Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now. "It's an extreme right-wing decision and it's not something we expected from this government. I don't think that the government should give in to the pressure of the settlers to live there. It's against the promises of the roadmap and promises to the international community."

Amid the controversy over the issue, Israeli officials said this week the decision is still under consideration.

"It's not a new site in any case, but given the sensitivity of the issue, it's being reviewed," says Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. The Defense Ministry, which issued the permit a week ago, declined to comment. An official who asked not to be quoted said that a final decision has not yet been made.

Here in Maskiot, there is a sense that a new settlement – or at least a significantly expanded one – is not merely being considered, but is already taking root.

There are currently a few dozen young post-high school men living here, studying in a religious preparatory program before their induction into the army. Two of the families who were evacuated some 16 months ago from Gaza have already moved in; they refused to speak to a visiting reporter.

The families are two of at least 16 families who plan to settle here, and are part of a narrative that seems problematic for people of all political stripes. Moved out of Gaza in August 2005, the Israeli government never found a permanent community for them. And because their settlement in Gaza wasn't officially recognized by the government, they didn't qualify for some of the same relocation benefits other settlers did.

"This is my place now. My bones will be buried here," says Binyamin Rabinovich, as he was busy fixing a car. It's so remote that there's hardly any cell phone reception, and when there is, the phones pick up Jordanian rather than Israeli signals.

"I'm disappointed in our government, that they would agree to freeze this because of pressure from the US," he says. "The Land of Israel is ours and we need to develop it."

Searching for a home

About 10 minutes down the winding road from Maskiot is the settlement of Hemdat, where nine of the 16 families who had lived in the Gaza settlement of Shirat Hayam are now living in a cluster of mobile homes on the side of hill. Shirat Hayam's name means "Song of the Sea," a reference to a biblical poem, which is depicted as a song sung by the Israelites just after their exodus from Egypt.

The analogies are not coincidental. Here, people take an extraordinary long view of history. They don't use the word disengagement or withdrawal so much as gerush, which means expulsion and is reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition.

The leader of the group of temporary settlers, waiting for what they now expect will be their new homes in Maskiot, says they've taken shelter in five different places since being evacuated by Gaza.

"We wanted to build our new community as quickly as possible. It's already more than a year and we're still not in our homes," says Yosef Hazut, a young father of two, after tramping through the rainy season's red mud between the boxy trailer homes.

"It's not so easy to start a new community over the Green Line," says Mr. Hazut. There they looked in the less populated parts of the country that Israel has long expressed hopes to develop, such as the Negev and the Galilee. They face only obstacles and delays, he says, and decided to come here.

Still, the dislocation of being moved out and around has not discouraged them from resettling in the West Bank. The fact that they don't believe there's too great a likelihood they'll be evacuated yet again is a window into how Israelis see this area, which they refer to as the Jordan Valley, but not the West Bank. Polls have shown that the majority of Israelis think they should maintain control of this area, even if only for defense purposes.

"We're people of faith," says Hazut. "And I think there's only a very small chance there would ever be a disengagement from the Jordan Valley. "For most Israelis, the Jordan Valley is a red line: giving up the Jordan Valley means to return the whole of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and allow the establishment of a terrorist state here, just the way we're seeing in Gaza."

Evolving view of the West Bank?

The gap between how most Israelis view the West Bank and how it is viewed elsewhere appears to be widening. As a case in point, Education Minister Yuli Tamir introduced a plan to change Israeli school textbooks to include the Green Line on maps of the country. Her proposal was voted down earlier this week, 8-2, by a Knesset education committee panel that disagreed and painted her as a radical with a extreme left agenda.

Rather than this being a conscience decision to build up settlements in the Jordan Valley, some analysts here say, the government is taking an ad hoc, policy-less approach to which settlements grow and where.

"Maskiot was a kind of military settlement a few years ago and they want to kind of reestablish it," says Hillel Cohen, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Truman Center for the Advancement of Peace.

"I think the point is the Israeli government doesn't really know where it's going to," says Professor Cohen. "I don't see that they have any plan. They just deal with problems from day to day. Where they want us to be in five years isn't clear. So if they have a group that wants to settle in the Jordan Valley, they say OK, go settle there.

"I don't think [that] the government really thought about it and they didn't think the US would say much about it, either."

One of the reasons for this view, he says, is that in the 1970s, Israeli military strategist and foreign minister Yigal Allon proposed a plan to give West Bank Arabs autonomy but keep the Jordan Valley forever under Israeli sovereignty. The plan is unacceptable to all known Palestinian political factions.

But Mr. Allon, from the same left-leaning Labor Party that later signed a historic peace deal with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was once seen as a bulwark of the security-conscious mainstream. He encouraged settlements in the Jordan Valley, and drew many agriculturalists there. Today, some 70 percent of the current residents are secular people from liberal backgrounds, unlike the religious nationalist population that dominates in other areas of the settlements.

"In the heart of people in the Labor Party, we know that there are places which seem more logical or legal to settle, and this is one of them," says Cohen. "Also today, I think that if there is a plan of the Israeli government, it does include keeping at least part of the Jordan Valley as part of the future Israeli state."

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