March 03, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- After the tragic Hebron massacre, television showed us the portraits of two Israeli settlements. Arab spokesmen say that Israeli settlers must be disarmed, that the settlements are the paramount issue, and that the settlements must now be put on the negotiating agenda immediately instead of later, as originally planned.

Because the settlements on display are vastly atypical, this argument is dubious.

One of the settlements in the camera's eye is a small one, composed of ultra-religious Jews in the old Jewish quarter of Hebron, an otherwise all-Arab city.

We see pictures of bearded men, with Uzis, wearing yarmulkes, strolling, or strutting, along the old streets. (Hebron became all-Arab after Arab massacres of Jews in 1929.)

The second settlement shown is Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, but not in it, home of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli terrorist. It is a hotbed of the Israeli extremist faction, Kach, which believes in pushing Arabs out of the West Bank, just as Hamas, the Arab extremist group, wants to push Jews out of Israel, preferably dead.

But the vast majority of the estimated 110,000 Israeli settlers are neither ultra-religious, nor located in the midst of Arab populations, nor extremist ideologues. Of the 144 Israeli settlements on the West Bank only the one in Hebron is actually located within a wholly Arab community.

And as for Kach: When it was still legally entitled to run candidates for parliament, it won just 1 of 120 seats.

One key to understanding what the settlements are, and aren't, concerns a central fact of West Bank demography. It is estimated that about 90 percent of the roughly 1 million West Bank Arabs live within a mile or so of the main North-South highland road that stretches from Hebron to Bethlehem, through Jerusalem, to Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin.

Because so much of the Arab population resides along one thin corridor, most of the remainder of the West Bank is, to an American eye, ''open.''

Some of it is barren. Much of the rest looks like a steeper version of the Texas hill country -- rolling, sturdy and brown, flecked with the deep green of olive trees and goats grazing on stubbled fields, spotted with faraway small villages perched on sharp hills. (That is hard to visualize in a Delaware-sized place, but go see it, or go to Delaware.)

The Israeli settlements come in a variety of shapes, sizes and locales.

Some of those small hilltop villages are Arab. Some, hills apart, are tiny Israeli communities. One group of Israeli settlements was planted after the Six Day War, along the Jordan River valley, and on the overlooking hills, on unpopulated land. Their reason for being was strategic: Jordanian tanks had rolled across the river once too often. No one is going to disarm those folks.

Demographically, most Israeli ''settlers'' are suburbanites. Suburbs expand cities. And so, outside Tel Aviv and around Jerusalem, there are Israelis living in tract houses with back yards and gardens, and in apartment houses, with flowering window boxes, in communities with schools and shopping centers. Some of these settlers are ideological, proud to be reclaiming ancient Biblical territory; many are there because that's where the land was, replete with cut-rate houses, mortgages and fresh air.

Therefore what? The word ''settlement'' is a euphemism, un-deep code for ''who ends up with how much land.'' That, for anyone sleeping since 1948, is what a main part of the fight has been about.

It is the most difficult problem to solve, but not impossible, because the two populations -- contrary to television images -- are not generally intertwined and so, possibly, not doomed to perpetual combat. That is why the peace process was designed to do easier things first: withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho, security arrangements, a self-governing authority, all designed to establish some mutual confidence.

The time to cut the land pie can only come in a few years, as planned. Until then, Palestinians and Israelis should get back to the peace table and let the process go forward, with a prayer.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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