With eye on Sharon, Israeli settlement grows in West Bank

Building booms in Tekoa despite concerns that premier might abandon it

January 20, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEKOA, West Bank - The dozens of houses under construction in this Jewish settlement are spilling down a hillside, well beyond the road tracing a broad oval that once defined the community boundaries.

There's a building boom in Tekoa.

Despite the boom, this settlement's 1,500 residents are becoming apprehensive about the future of their community, ever since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began talking of putting greater distance between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank.

He proposes abandoning isolated settlements, and Tekoa seems to fit that description, its houses perched on a hilltop in the ridges near the Jordan Valley, a 20-minute drive southwest of Jerusalem. When it was built, it embodied the idea that Israel should control the high ground, the better to observe what was happening in the valleys.

Residents of Tekoa include the religious as well as the secular, native Israelis as well as Israelis born in Russia or the United States. All of them are listening closely to Sharon.

Long an ardent advocate of settlements, and one of the main architects of their rapid expansion in the mid-1980s and early '90s, Sharon is now viewed with suspicion and derision for having declared that some settlements may have to be uprooted.

"I think something has disturbed the prime minister's mind," said Yanir Maimon, Tekoa's maintenance worker. "He thinks that he is God. That is the problem."

Maimon's viewpoint would be considered extreme by many Israelis, but it signals the difficulties inherent in evacuating settlements. Maimon is ideologically opposed to retreating one inch.

"Sharon is going to try to kick us out," said Maimon, who moved to Tekoa three years ago. "It's going to be very painful. A lot of blood is going to be spilled."

There are no immediate plans to abandon any of the 142 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to more than 220,000 Israelis. And many Israelis dismiss Sharon's comments about dismantling settlements as a false threat, that he is not serious when he says he is willing to make "painful concessions" to end Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.

At the same time, Sharon has a record of getting his way, whatever the obstacles, first as an army general, then as the Cabinet minister in charge of housing programs and now as head of the government. Over the past two months, he has said repeatedly that some settlements will have to go if there is to be a lasting peace.

"We have been through this quite a few times," said Amiel Ungar, a political science professor who moved to Tekoa in 1979, when only five families lived on the hill. "Sharon didn't give any numbers or names. There is no doubt that if it comes to evacuation, Sharon would be abandoning his conception of the mountain ridge. Then we are in big trouble."

Tekoa is encircled by Palestinian villages, and Palestinians and Israelis share the narrow paved road that leads to the settlement.

Tekoa was established in 1975 as a temporary military base, when Shimon Peres, who now leads the opposition Labor Party, was defense minister. Sharon, as minister of agriculture, promoted Tekoa's shift to a residential community in 1977.

It now boasts schools, a small store, a winery and a mushroom farm. Its main street circles the summit of the hill, with 300 houses laid out along seven narrow streets inside the circle.

Palestinian snipers have routinely shot at Israeli cars on the winding roads leading to the settlement. Three years ago, two teen-age boys from Tekoa, one of whom grew up in Maryland, were bludgeoned to death with rocks while exploring nearby caves.

Settlement leaders say Tekoa appears to fit the vague description given by Sharon and his aides of the type of community that would have to be abandoned if the government withdrew from parts of the West Bank without waiting to negotiate a formal peace agreement with the Palestinians.

One of Sharon's confidants, Industry Minister Ehud Olmert, said tens of thousands of settlers would have to be moved. Sharon has refused to name the settlements that might be affected.

"I think that the decision then to build those Jewish communities was the right thing to do," Sharon said. "I still believe that it was important, and I agree that some of them will have to be removed."

U.S. officials have expressed reservations about Israel acting unilaterally, saying that they prefer a negotiated end to the conflict. But they also have said they would not oppose dismantling settlements.

Sharon "sounds pretty serious," a U.S. official said. "He's bucking his own party. He's bucking his own history, at least with some of the words that he says."

More than 100,000 Israelis demonstrated recently in Tel Aviv against Sharon's plan, a crowd that included 11 members of Israel's parliament. Ungar, the professor, was among the protesters; he said he left heartened that the settler movement "could now not be ignored. It is good if Sharon knows that everybody is replaceable."

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