West Bank settlers resist removal effort

Young demonstrators cause delay in first eviction under pact

October 20, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MA'ON FARM, West Bank -- Splitting with the old guard of established Jewish settlements, a young generation of settlers is throwing a wrench into Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's plans to bring an orderly end to the era of uncontrolled, unapproved hilltop encampments in the West Bank.

Yesterday, a group called Dor Hahemshech, meaning the Next or Continuing Generation, blocked the path of a truck sent to remove a large metal container that settlers had placed to stake a claim to a piece of ground called Hill 804 east of Hebron.

Erecting a barricade of tires, barrels and rocks from the craggy hillside, the several dozen demonstrators forced the government to postpone the first settlement removal under an agreement reached last week between Barak and the main settlers' organization, the Yesha Council.

The agreement is an important element in keeping the peace process moving between Israel and the Palestinians who claim the land.

In his deal with the council, Barak scaled back to 10 the number of illegal settlements to be removed from an original list of 42. The council, in turn, backed his decision and agreed to try to persuade the hilltop dwellers to leave voluntarily.

It looked as though Barak would avoid a nasty repetition of the violent resistance that accompanied the dismantlement of the village of Yamit when Israel gave up the Sinai to Egypt in the early 1980s.

Barak is no opponent of settlements. His government has approved expansion of existing settlements at a faster rate than that of his right-wing predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Some of the expansions are near the outposts that are supposed to be dismantled.

The key for the government is control. "Only the government, and the government itself, will decide what are the security needs of the state of Israel," said Haim Ramon.

Hill 804 was supposed to be the easiest challenge, since no one lived there. In fact, the settlers council took charge of the removal itself. Soldiers who arrived at the scene did not intervene. Most of the Dor Hahemshech members seem to want to avoid a confrontation with soldiers.

`I'm a peace man'

"I'm against violence. I'm a peace man," Shimon Riklin, 36, a Dor Hahemshech leader from the Maale Mikhmash settlement near Jerusalem, said in an interview this week.

Officials fear that Ma'on Farm could be a different story, a painful last gasp of the rogue settler movement that has leapt from hill to hill in a bid to bring all of biblical Judea and Samaria into Israeli control.

This is one of the places where the government expects to use the army to conduct the removal. A Barak adviser, Yossi Vardi, visited here Sunday, but apparently made little headway with the settlers led by Yehosefat Tor, 29, known to others as particularly hard line.

"We're going to stay, what is the question?" Tor said with impatience during a brief interview outside the home he shares here with his wife, Shira, and child. Asked if he expected the confrontation with soldiers to be violent, he said, "It could be, I don't know."

Explaining, he said that if someone enters your house, pushes out your wife and kids and breaks everything inside, do "you sit quietly?"

"I don't know what I would do if someone goes and does something to my family. It could be very bad," he said.

A violent past

The 2 1/2-year-old Ma'on Farm has a violent past. A settler, Dov Driben, was killed in a fight with neighboring Arabs soon after the settlement was created. He would have been 30 today.

While united by their defiance, the young settlers have different motivations.

Religion appears to drive the four families and several additional single men who live here at Ma'on Farm.

"We came here because it's our land from the Bible," said Tor. His house is one of two permanent structures at the site. The other is the foundation of what the settlers hope will become a synagogue.

Since Sunday, the settlement has been home to a makeshift synagogue in a tent, occupied by a group of young men who come daily bearing heavy torahs and spend the day studying in a show of solidarity with the settlers.

At Neve Erez, an encampment just outside Maale Mikhmash, Noam Cohen, 32, says he is there simply because of the peace and quiet and the rugged beauty of the landscape.

"Look at the view. We all love the desert," he said. It's not just Cohen's long hair and counterculture sandals that defies the stereotype of the zealous settler; he also supports the idea of a Palestinian state.

Feeling of abandonment

What unites the young settlers is a feeling of abandonment by older settlement leaders whose own small encampments -- many also unapproved by earlier governments -- have grown over the years into villages and even towns and who are now a fixture in national politics.

`What these kids did was have the get-up-and-go to do what the council didn't do -- go to the hills and hang on," veteran settlement activist Yisrael Medod told the Jerusalem Post recently.

Yesterday, at least one older settler, Daniella Weiss, came out in support of the young people.

"God forbid, touching one hill might, might cause a chain of withdrawals from other places. So this is why we have decided at least, and I emphasize at least, to protest," said Weiss, a longtime activist.

A spokeswoman for the Yesha Council said it would make a new effort at persuading settlers to relinquish the outposts peacefully.

Prime minister determined

Barak, meanwhile, sounded a note of determination.

"The prime minister's decision of last week, acceptable to the Yesha Council, will be implemented as planned," spokesman Gadi Baltiansky said.

But so did the young settlers. At Hill 804, 10 of them built a campfire and settled in for an all-night vigil.

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