Israeli settlers have become the tail wagging the dog

March 13, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun M. K. Guzda in Jerusalem contributed to this article

ELON MOREH, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- The Promised Land is for rent here. A two-bedroom flat with a spectacular view of Abraham's old neighborhood goes for $100 a month.

The question is, to whom is the land promised?

Jewish settlers who lay claim to that biblical testament have moved inexorably onto the land, subsidized in part by the U.S. government, which for 2 1/2 decades has condemned the settlements.

The settlers at Elon Moreh were among the first. Fifteen years ago, a small band of zealous Jews provoked a clamor from the Arab world, Washington and even Jerusalem when they moved to a site near Nablus, the West Bank's most populous Arab city.

Since then, more than 100,000 have followed to other settlements, even as U.S. presidents have complained, Arab leaders have howled, and the Palestinians have watched as land they considered theirs disappeared.

"This is our place," Eliyahu Levy explained of the sweep of the Nablus Valley overlooked by the Jewish settlement. The wiry 43-year-old with a Baretta strapped to his waist added generously, "Foreigners can stay here, if they have no political aspirations."

By "foreigners," he means the Arabs whose ancestors also walked the land with Abraham -- the patriarch of both Arabs and Jews -- and who now live in Nablus.

Mr. Levy's Jewish companions came here 13 years ago, after stirring up an international furor in an encampment closer to Nablus.

There are now 144 such settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and they are at the heart of one of the world's most troublesome conflicts.

It seems a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Peace between Israel and 220 million Arabs is in reach if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is solved. That conflict could be solved if the issue of Jewish settlements is defused.

But 2 percent of Israel's population -- about 120,000 settlers -- stand in the way of that solution.

"It's true. If you just looked at the short history, we are a pain in the rear to the Middle East," said Mr. Levy, the secretary of the Elon Moreh settlement. "Why is there a war between Arabs and Jews? Because we're here. But if you look at the long history, this is our place."

The United States, Israel's chief financier, staunchest supporter and military supplier, -- has long viewed Jewish settlements on Arab lands captured by Israel in the 1967 war as a significant obstacle to peace.

Several presidents considered them illegal. All opposed, at least in principle, subsidizing them with U.S. aid. All, essentially, to little avail.

And two weeks ago, the massacre of Arab worshipers in Hebron by a Jew from one of the first and most zealous settlements brought U.S. policy-makers face-to-face with the consequences of their 2 1/2 -decade failure: the threatened derailment of momentum toward a comprehensive peace that could finally halt the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Trouble foreseen

Some Israelis seemed to have foreseen as much. They surprised even themselves in 1967 when their armies burst out of the narrow strip of the country's 1948 borders and in six days swept into Jordan, Syria and Egypt.

After the war, military hero Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion, the founding leader of modern Israel, advocated trading back the territories they had captured in return for peace.

"Sinai? Gaza? The West Bank? Let them all go," said Mr. Ben-Gurion. "Peace is more important than real estate. We do not need territories."

But a decade later, Menachem Begin and his militantly nationalistic Likud bloc were in power with precisely the opposite idea in mind. In 1979, Israel traded the Sinai back to Egypt for peace. The desert peninsula had little religious significance; demilitarized, it posed no threat. But the West Bank and Gaza were the land of Israel. "West Bank" was replaced with the biblical names, Judea and Samaria.

There, Mr. Begin promised Israelis, a million Jews eventually would be settled. At the time, there were fewer than 4,500 Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza. Only a few of them were part of the Gush Emunim or "Bloc of the Faithful," religiously motivated settlers who provided the nucleus of the avalanche that Mr. Begin anticipated.

Yitzhak Shamir, who took over from Mr. Begin in 1984, was equally committed and even less tolerant of international complaints. By 1992, Likud had added 112 new settlements to the 32 already started when it came to power.

Some of these were a few flimsy mobile homes planted on barren hillsides, ringed by barbed wire, peopled with hard and dedicated Zionists. Others were virtual suburban towns, with California-style ranch homes, irrigated lawns and kids playing soccer in the streets.

Ariel "Arik" Sharon, the burly warrior, had served Mr. Begin as minister of agriculture in getting the settlements program on a fast track. Returning from disgrace as the architect of Israel's devastating military experience in Lebanon, he took over his old job for Mr. Shamir with the title of housing minister.

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