Israeli settlement battle is becoming a test of wills

February 07, 1992|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau

BET EL, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The Jewish settlers of Bet El see themselves as, above all else, patient and persistent.

They have waited for an end to the Palestinian uprising without allowing the wait to distract them from building more homes.

"For four years we have told ourselves be patient, and in that time we have doubled the number of people in Bet El," said Rabbi Benny Elon, who belongs to an influential group of religious leaders living in the West Bank. "This is the real battle, you understand -- who has more patience."

A number of parties are involved in this test of wills. Settlers long ago challenged their Palestinian neighbors for control of the land and have established settlements at times and in places that Israel's government opposed. They have challenged Israel's army for control of the law by setting up their own patrols and, on occasion, attacking Palestinians and their property.

Now, settlers also are challenging the United States by pressing for the construction of more and more homes, a tactic intended to undo American efforts to support several sets of Arab-Israeli peace talks.

For many settlers, the United States is the only significant obstacle between their 24-year-old movement and its ultimate goal. Only the threat of American condemnation seems to stand in the way of Israel formally annexing the West Bank and Gaza Strip and thereby ending negotiations about granting self-rule to the Palestinians.

Since settlements became linked to U.S. approval for loan guarantees for Israel, the settlers' unhappiness with the United States has only increased. The Bush administration is seeking to tie the loan guarantees to new limits on the expansion of settlements.

Settlers respond that their work is more important than money or peace talks and that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir should say so.

"I believe that Americans respect you when you tell them the truth," said Israel Harel, chairman of the main policy-setting group for the settlers. "We need to be frank with them."

Said Mr. Harel: "What you call the West Bank is the very source of our spiritual existence and the justification of our claim to Israel as a national homeland. Take it away from us, and we lose our basic feeling of nationhood."

Settlers are as uncomprehending of criticism as some critics are uncomprehending of the settlers' determination. For the settlers, the building of their communities represents the redemption of the land that the Old Testament prophets said was promised to the Jews. To try to stop them is to meddle in a process that the settlers believe to be unstoppable.

"This is not an experiment -- that's the first, basic thing," saidRachelle Heller, who has lived in Bet El since its founding in 1977. "We are here, and it's a fact of life."

Bet El looks no less permanent than a middle-class suburb of two- and three-story houses in the United States. Its 500 families have the usual problems of keeping their lawns green and tricycles out of the streets.

It began as a camp within the high fence of an army outpost on the northern outskirts of the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Bet El quickly outgrew the army base, expanded across one steep hill and then across a second, where several dozen houses are under construction.

Sympathetic members of Mr. Shamir's government have done their utmost to ensure the number of settlers increases at the fastest possible rate, to make an Israeli withdrawal more nearly unthinkable. Each new home in a Jewish settlement gives another household a greater stake in the territories Israel captured in 1967 and a compelling economic reason to urge Israel to keep them.

Ariel Sharon, minister of construction and housing, has been the settlers' most important ally. He has commissioned a housing boom in which the government is spending about 25 percent of its construction budget in the occupied territories, home to about 112,000 settlers outside of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights -- less than 4 percent of Israel's Jewish population.

When the rest of the homes are completed by the end of 1993, thesettler population is projected to reach about 185,000 outside of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. That figure would mark an 85 percent increase since May 1990, when Mr. Sharon became minister.

Settlers depict themselves as part of the mainstream of Zionist history. They have appropriated the symbols traditionally belonging to the political left and the builders of the agricultural settlements of the 1920s and 1930s -- the images of a vigorous, single-minded people literally building a modern state town-by-town.

There is much derision of the left. Residents of Bet El say that while the leftists debate politics in the cafes of Tel Aviv, settlers are doing the important work of claiming land for Israel. They make no distinction between themselves -- employing Palestinian laborers to build houses financed by government mortgages-- and the founders of a kibbutz who worked in their own fields.

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