Victorious Kadima party plans to evacuate Jewish settlements in the West Bank

Settlers pledge to stay despite Israeli vote

March 30, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

ELON MOREH, West Bank -- On a hilltop overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus, residents of this Jewish settlement wept and prayed yesterday at a memorial service for four residents killed by Palestinians in 2002, and in a sense, over Israeli voters' decision this week to tell Jewish settlers to abandon their homes.

On Tuesday, Israelis voted into office the Kadima party, whose chief promise is to evacuate settlements such as this one. At yesterday's memorial service, the residents of Elon Moreh promised to honor the dead by never leaving.

"We owe it to our children and to them to fight for this country," said Meir Lewkowicz, a professor of physics at the College of Judea & Samaria who made a home here 24 years ago. "We have to keep living here."

Olmert's plan

But it was clear that the Kadima party of acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which won the most seats in Tuesday's election, had other ideas. Party officials pledged to work quickly to form a governing coalition to carry out Olmert's plan to pull out of much of the West Bank and draw Israel's permanent borders by 2010.

Although Kadima garnered fewer seats than expected, party leaders interpreted the victory as a green light to finalize withdrawal plans within a year. Haim Ramon, a senior Kadima lawmaker, was confident that the party will get backing from a majority in the 120-member parliament for the withdrawal plan.

"I believe we will have more than 70 legislators who will support the disengagement plan," he told Israel Radio.

Elon Moreh, a settlement of 1,500 people on the slopes of Mount Kabir, had been singled out by Kadima as one of the settlements that would be evacuated once Olmert's plan was put into action.

Guns and politics

Living about 10 miles from Nablus at the end of a long, lonely road carved into rocky hillsides, the settlers have a clear view of the city of 200,000 Palestinians in the valley below.

Elon Moreh's residents pride themselves on being self-sufficient, with their own health clinic, library, schools, industrial zone, mini-market and hardware store. But they are also known for frequent clashes with their Palestinian neighbors, including the destruction of olive groves and preventing Palestinians from moving freely, as documented by the Israeli activist group Peace Now.

In 2002, a member of the militant Islamic group Hamas infiltrated the community and slipped inside the home of the Gavish family - who helped establish the Jewish settlement in 1980 - and shot and killed four members of the household.

Like many West Bank settlers, residents of Elon Moreh walk with machine guns slung over their shoulders. An army base sits at the settlement's entrance. While the settlement refuses to erect a fence, arguing that it would show weakness, it is protected by attack dogs, floodlights, video cameras and army patrols.

But the settlers appear less prepared to defend themselves against the political forces working against them.

The right-wing parties that supported Elon Moreh's dream of a Greater Israel failed to generate much enthusiasm in the election. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, declared that the vote would be a referendum on the withdrawal plan, but he never galvanized public opinion against it.

During the campaign, hundreds of Jewish settlers went door to door across Israel to persuade voters to support rightist parties that rejected the idea of territorial compromise.

"We hoped that the results would have been better for us," said Benny Katzover, the leader of Elon Moreh. "But it could have been worse." He insisted that voters were punishing the right for economic policies that widened the gap between rich and poor.

"The Israeli election to great extent was not about Judea and Samaria," he said, using the settlers' names for the West Bank, and sipping coffee outside the synagogue after the memorial service. "Olmert did not receive a mandate from the Jewish people for his plan. His position is weaker. Our ability to oppose the pullout is greater."

The Gaza example

But oppose it how?

Last summer, settler leaders trying to stop Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip struggled to develop a successful strategy. They blocked roads and organized marches and hunger strikes, but ended up annoying the public instead of building sympathy for their cause.

When Israel's withdrawal from Gaza began, Jewish settlers surrounded themselves with barbed wire on their rooftops, pelted soldiers with sewage and paint, and forced authorities to forcibly pull them from their houses. But the withdrawal - expected to take a month - was wrapped up in a week.

"I don't think we are going to go peacefully as they went in Gaza," said Lewkowicz. "The price for the government will be so high they won't try."

Lewkowicz's 19-year-old son was convicted of endangering the public after he and other settlers blocked a highway in Israel with cars and burning mattresses. He is now serving a two-year prison term.

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