New hope for Israeli settlers A West Bank town expects to grow under Netanyahu

August 13, 1996|By Ann LoLordo FTC | Ann LoLordo FTC,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ARIEL, West Bank -- Ron Nachman, mayor of this Jewish settlement, spent the past four years battling Israeli officials for the chance to fill empty apartments, pave streets, even build sidewalks in this rocky hilltop town. Now, a new government is poised to give him that chance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is making good on his promise to settlers to increase their presence in the West Bank, which is also home to more than a million Palestinians.

His Cabinet has streamlined the process for expanding settlements, and two new roads -- projects stalled under the previous government -- are being promoted by Netanyahu's bullish infrastructure minister, Ariel Sharon, who in the past has let neither money nor process interfere with his desires.

One of those roads will lead to Ariel. "A good road brings you life," Mayor Nachman says plainly. "Big population creates a political fact."

What other steps the prime minister plans to take to help the 145,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remains unclear. And with Sharon's big shadow looming over the land, there is also a question of who will control the process.

Netanyahu has not announced support for creating new settlements but says he favors concentrating settlements in blocs -- development that might begin with gas stations or industrial areas rather than houses and lead, as the newspaper Yediot Aharonot described it, to "a continuous area of construction with [Israeli] flags."

But the prime minister has offered few other specifics. He contends that he is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Netanyahu likes to remind citizens that the number of settlers increased under the previous government by 50 percent. But peace activists who monitor settlement development contend the figure is closer to 39 percent, of which 16 percent was attributed to the natural increase in family size.

The prime minister also speaks of natural increase.

"Life has its own force," he said to explain his Cabinet's decision to disband a committee that for the past four years effectively froze most settlement development. "Rather than try to impose artificial chains on couples being married and then having children and opening kindergartens we said, 'Go ahead -- build, marry, have children, have schools.' But we did not make any more sweeping decisions that that."

The decision, however, clears the way for the government to sell 1,500 vacant apartments in the West Bank and Gaza, according to activists. It has provoked an outcry among Palestinians, who see settlement expansion as an assault on the peace process and their chance for an eventual state of their own.

Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian authority, has strongly denounced Netanyahu's plans.

"There is a settlement ghoul in Jerusalem," Arafat was quoted as telling a session of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "The most important thing is to confront this ghoul, which swallows everything including the peace process."

Arafat said that Netanyahu's expansion plans violate the 1993 peace accord in which Israel and the Palestinians agreed to negotiate the permanent status of the West Bank and Gaza during a five-year interim period. Among the issues to be resolved was the future of settlements.

Netanyahu's critics on the left suggest that his settlement expansion policy is an example of the prime minister's gradual weakening of the peace agreements.

"Just as you can build peace incrementally, you can also incrementally dismantle Oslo," said Shlomo Avineri, referring to the peace accords reached in Oslo, Norway. "This is the salami method," added Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University who was an official in a previous Labor government.

Netanyahu's decisions will make themselves visible in Ariel and the other settlements perched on the rocky hilltops of what they call Judea and Samaria, the biblical names that they use to emphasize their belief that God gave them the land.

The consequences will be felt along the dusty roads of Palestinian villages like Marda and Kifl Harith, in a valley of olive trees below Ariel.

The core of the conflict is land that two peoples claim as their own. This territory, the ridges where Ariel and other settlements now sit, has been ruled by Ottomans, British, Jordanians and, since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israelis.

Israel has used a variety of methods to secure property for settlements. It has seized land after citing security needs and relied on Jordanian law for "compulsory" purchases. In a rural society where tradition had as much weight as formal documents, Israel required Palestinians to prove ownership, or declared vast tracts "state land" -- confiscating about 40 percent of the total land area.

Ariel was founded on 7,500 acres, half of it bought by a Labor government, according to Nachman, the town mayor. The settlement grew within the boundary of that "state land."

The men arrived first, in 1977.

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