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Behind the Headlines Jewish Settlers View Their Future

A spokesperson for the representative body of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip exhorted a group of American and Canadian visitors to this West Bank settlement to accept a Jewish presence in the territories as a fait accompli.

“This is the future,” asserted Shifra Blass, speaking on behalf of the Council of Jewish Cities and Settlements in Judaea, Samaria and Gaza. “Israel is going to be in Judaea and Samaria.”

During a nearly one-and-a-half hour often heated but generally amicable encounter in the Council’s crowded offices, Blass referred to the barrage of criticism which the settlements have generated abroad. “You’re Jews, you’re Zionists,” she said. “When we look bad, you look bad.” She said that “it’s in everyone’s interests, in this case maybe more in your interests, to think how to improve Israel’s image abroad.”

SAYS SETTLEMENT PROCESS IS ‘IRREVERSIBLE’

The Wisconsin-born mother of five told the visitors and their Israeli escorts that putting the best face on the West Bank settlements was advisable because the settlement process in the territories was “irreversible,” a view that she said is maintained by even some of the settlers’ harshest critics.

The 17 American and Canadian visitors and their Israeli escorts were participants in a two-week study tour of Israel sponsored by Friends of Peace Now and the Mordechai Anielewicz Circle of the Americans for Progressive Israel.

Outside the window of the Council’s office, red-topped rows of uniform-looking buildings, some of the 10-year-old settlement’s 200 dwellings, appeared in the distance. Inside, two Ofra settlers, Blass and Yisrael Harel, the Council’s executive director who acted as the meeting’s moderator, said, in Harel’s words, that they were attempting “not to change minds” but to inform their visitors “a little better” about what the settlers thought and what they were doing in the territories.

The Council, according to Harel, serves as an umbrella organization which “lobbies” on behalf of the political interests of the Jewish settlers. He said the settlers accounted for 20,000 votes in the July 23 elections, which is less than one percent of the total electorate.

The casual attire of the visitors was in sharp contrast to the scarf head-covering and modest dress of Blass, who said she, like most of the other 700 residents of Ofra, “identified” with the Gush Emunim which she said aims to “unite the people of Israel with the land of Israel.”

JUSTIFICATION FOR THE SETTLER’S PRESENCE

One visitor asked for a “personal” justification for the settlers’ controversial presence in the territories whose nearly 1.3 million Arabs outnumber the Jewish settlers more than 30 to 1. Blass and Harel justified the presence on two levels: a “pragmatic” level, basically the belief that Israel’s security requires control of the West Bank; and an “ideological” level, based on “principles of history, morality and religion,” a mix which Blass noted settlement opponents had a hard time understanding.

Blass, who arrived in Israel 10 years ago after graduating from Barnard College in New York with a degree in English literature, described the settlers’ motivation as the “instinctive and natural compulsion to settle in all parts of the land of Israel that are available to us.” A large photo of an Israeli army officer cradling a child during the evacuation of a settlement in Sinai was removed from a wall and replaced, for the benefit of the visitors, by a map of Judaea and Samaria. Blass and Harel then pointed out what they said was the necessity for Israel to have control of the ridge of mountains in Samaria, a control crucial to protect Israel’s heavily populated and industrialized coastal plain.

A photograph of Rabbi Abraham Kook, an ardent Zionist and Chief Rabbi of Palestine’s Ashekenazic Jewish community until his death in 1935, hung behind Harel as he told the group: “Gush Emunim said when it was founded 10 years ago that we will reach our goals when the entire people of Israel follow us. Otherwise we would be a sect.” Gush is meeting its goals, Harel said, especially over the last two years. Settlers have been coming to the West Bank from “every part of the population,” he said.

SETTLEMENT MOVEMENT DESCRIBED AS VIGOROUS

Harel described the settlement movement in the territories as vigorous. He said the 125 settlements in Judaea and Samaria were home to nearly 40,000 Jews. Early on in the meeting, he suggested that the visitors, all but two Jewish, use the Biblical names for the regions which comprise the West Bank during the discussion, “just for politeness.”

Blass said that the reclaiming of “the heart of the Jewish homeland,” as she referred to the West Bank, presents Israel with a major dilemma, more acutely drawn, she said, by the failure of the government to expel the Arab population of the territory after the Six-Day War.

If all the Arab residents of the territories — 800,000 in the West Bank and some 500,000 in the Gaza Strip — were granted citizenship in the event of annexation, Israel will have a “severe demographic problem,” Blass said, referring to the addition of the Arabs in the territories to Israel’s present mix of 3.4 million Jews and 700,000 Arabs.

Because the present Arab birthrate in Israel and the territories is higher than the Jewish birthrate, some predict that the Jewish State could eventually be dismantled democratically by what would become an Arab majority in Israel.

“If Arab residents are not given full rights of citizenship, we have a democratic crisis,” Blass added.

PROSPECTS FOR A SOLUTION

One solution embraced by the Council, Blass said, could be to offer the Arabs in the West Bank autonomy on the local level and the option of either retaining Jordanian citizenship or applying for Israeli citizenship. Those Arabs who desired Israeli citizenship would need to demonstrate allegiance to Israel, she said.

The Council has no official solution to the political problems posed by Gaza Strip’s Arabs, who have neither Egyptian nor Jordanian citizenship, Blass said.

Yehuda Litani, the West Bank correspondent for Ha’aretz and a critic of Jewish settlements in the territorties, who served as a guide for the group’s West Bank tour, said that Harel and other settlers in the area have made efforts to get closer to their Arab neighbors. The efforts were strengthened after the exposure of a Jewish underground planning to terrorize Israeli and West Bank Arabs, Litani said. Blass later revealed in a telephone interview that four of 27 individuals accused of being part of the underground are from Ofra.

She told the visitors before they left the settlement that neither this, nor any generation of Jews has the right to bargain over Israel’s boundaries. She said she found herself in rare agreement with David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, on this issue. She quoted him as saying that “no generation has the right to make concessions over part of the land of Israel.”

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