Many Israeli settlers in West Bank see no peace, only encroaching enemies ISRAELI-PLO PEACE PLAN

September 01, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MITZPEH JERICHO, Israeli-occupied West Bank -- From high on their outpost hill, protected by barbed wire, a security gate and a young man with an M-16, the 600 Jewish settlers of Mitzpeh Jericho gaze to the west and see no prospect of peace, no matter what the diplomats say.

They see only that the enemy is drawing closer, preparing to vault the distant green ribbon of the Jordan River and fill the desert valley below, where the lights of neighboring ancient Jericho have just begun to twinkle on in the dusk.

"Look down there at Jericho," says Zalman Weberman, who recently brought his family of eight to this religious settlement. "It's just a hop, skip and a jump away. If anything, I think this plan will hurt the cause of peace. It will make it more dangerous for us."

His neighbor Rachel Cohen is more blunt. She has lived here for eight years, time to harden her opinions with the intractable fear and mistrust that has thwarted Middle East peacemakers for decades.

"The Jewish people are a chosen people, and Jewish people should be living in this area," she says. "It is ours. I don't deny the fact that the Arabs are our brothers, but if they come here it will be just like in '67, when there were shells falling on the outskirts of Jerusalem. . . . I have no trust in them. There is a saying, don't trust an Arab until 40 years after you've buried him."

Such is the ill will of the hard-liners confronting Israeli and Palestinian negotiators as they try to put the finishing touches on a breakthrough plan for Palestinian self-rule in a few Israeli-held territories.

The plan calls for the first steps toward Palestinian autonomy to be taken in the Gaza Strip and the town of Jericho. That has been especially hard to take here, where the residents look down onto Jericho's rooftops and wonder in horror which one will soon belong to Yasser Arafat, the longtime chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Mr. Arafat has said that he may well move to Jericho if the plan takes effect.

"I feel like I'm going to be Arafat's neighbor, and that doesn't please me at all," says Debbie Leibowitz.

But even worse, she says, is the sliding sense of security that the settlers have acquired, even through the shaky years of the "intifada," the Palestinian uprising in places such as Jerusalem, a scant dozen miles away.

"Up until now we haven't had problems," Ms. Leibowitz says. "None of the rock-throwing or any of that." The only complaints have been of the occasional theft, usually attributed to Bedouins, whose bleak clusters of ragged wool tents are tucked here and there into the creases of the neighboring hills.

"Before this [peace plan] came up, we were already thought of as the security zone," she says. "So what will we be now?"

The people here, who began settling Mitzpeh Jericho 15 years ago, say they came here out of religious devotion, nationalistic zeal and an urge to separate themselves from non-Jews. They have hunkered down together inside a fenced perimeter, with their own elementary school and their own synagogue. They carry their zeal into their family planning, strengthening the town with large families. It is a combination that seems to virtually guarantee rigid opinions on the Palestinian question.

Still, some say they're willing to compromise.

Aryeh Weisberg, one of four members of the town's secretariat, says, "In the long run I think there may be room for territorial compromise," although he allows that such opinions are rare here, where, he says, "quite a few are hard-liners."

And even he disagrees with the current peace plan. "They have conceded too quickly," he says of his government. "It is like they are giving away presents."

Just about everybody one talks to in the town feels betrayed by the government, which in many ways helped encourage such settlements on some of the territories seized during 1967's Six-Day War.

The settlers speak longingly of the leadership days of the Likud bloc, which vowed never to give up an inch of Judea and Samaria, the biblical names it favored for the West Bank territory.

Yesterday, Binyamin Netanyahu, of the right-wing Likud, led a delegation of parliament members through Jericho, visiting the house that the local rumor mill has dubbed Mr. Arafat's residence if the autonomy plans work out.

"I see a possibility that Arafat will move forward from here," Mr. Netanyahu said as two activists planted Israeli flags in front of the villa. "He says if this agreement is affirmed he will move on. What is the next goal? Jerusalem!"

Ms. Leibowitz said: "So long as the Likud was in command, we had nothing to worry about. But now we will have Arafat and his whole PLO. And if we give them one finger they'll ask for the whole hand."

Indeed, no one here seems to think that Jericho will be the last step, and many gloomily foresee a future in which their settlement will be engulfed by its enemies.

But as people such as Ms. Cohen dig deeper into their growing rage at the government, an odd thing happens. They begin to sound more and more like their most extreme foes on the other side.

"I pray," Ms. Cohen says, "that I will wake up tomorrow morning and read that either Rabin was assassinated or Arafat was assassinated."

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