EIN ARIK, West Bank (Jun. 29)
The residents of this picturesque Palestinian village near Ramallah were dumbfounded Thursday.
Before they understood what was happening, they were surrounded. First soldiers filled the narrow road passing through the valley where the village lies.
Then came buses with journalists, and finally Knesset members — 16 of them wearing shorts, T-shirts and walking shoes. They said they were on a hike to “demonstrate their love for Eretz Yisrael.”
Hiking, especially in and around Palestinian villages, has suddenly become a political as well as physical exercise.
Right-wing Israelis of the Greater Israel school see it as a response to the intifada, a way of showing the Palestinians that Jews have the right to go anywhere in “Eretz Yisrael” and won’t be deterred by stone-throwers.
Gush Emunim, the militant settlers movement, has 52 hikes crisscrossing the West Bank planned for Friday.
The politicians of Likud and other right-wing parties were not to be outdone. They took their hike on Thursday, assured of maximum media coverage.
They were protected by the army, which took the precaution of clamping a curfew on Ein Arik, although the hamlet was peaceful enough.
That led to a headline in the afternoon tabloid Ma’ariv: “Whole Army Deployed to Protect the Settlers’ Hikes.”
Likud Knesset member Michael Eitan, leader of the group, said the hike was planned a long time ago. He insisted it had no bearing on the upcoming meeting of the Likud Central Committee in Tel Aviv.
The July 5 meeting was called by opponents of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s peace initiative, who hope to scuttle it or amend it out of existence.
A CHANCE TO SHOW OFF ARABLE
Likud Knesset members who support Shamir’s plan — Binyamin Begin, Reuven Rivlin and Yehoshua Matza — pointed to themselves as living proof that the hike was not intended to serve the political interests of the opponents.
The Likudniks were not the only ones demonstrating their love for the land.
The hikers included Knesset members of the National Religious Party and the ultranationalist party Tehiya, who leaped from rock to rock, wending their way along narrow paths through two Arab villages to the Jewish settlement of Dovev.
The curfew-bound Arabs of Ein Arik were frightened by the sudden invasion and curious.
A few who did not make it home before the curfew were waylaid by Likud Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi, who was determined to show off his Arabic.
He engaged the stragglers in conversation. How was their health? Where did they work? How many children did they have?
He didn’t seem interested in their political views.
“Ahalan u’sahlan,” (Welcome, welcome) the somewhat bewildered Arabs mumbled, as television cameramen did their job, delighted to find a Likud Knesset member talking to Arabs.
A few minutes later, after the politicians and soldiers moved on, a young Palestinian told reporters, “If they come here for peace, they are welcome, but if they support the settlers, they are not welcome.”
TWO SETTLERS REMAIN IN CUSTODY
The Israel Defense Force also had a point to make: Hiking in the West Bank is perfectly all right, as long as it is coordinated with the proper military authorities.
Recent hikes by settlers, not cleared with the IDF, have led to fatal clashes with Palestinian villagers.
A teen-age Palestinian girl was killed earlier this month by settlers supposedly on a hike in Kifel Harit village.
Last Friday, a 22-year-old youth was shot to death in Karawat Bani Zeid under similar circumstances.
Police arrested 11 settlers in connection with the latest incident. Two of them, Meir Berg and Ariel Begun from Pesagot, near Ramallah, are still in custody.
On Thursday, Jerusalem Magistrate Daniela Wechsler ordered Berg to be held for 10 more days and Begun for five.
Berg was accused by police of deliberately shooting Aziz Khamis Arar in Bani Zeid.
Begun, son of former refusenik Dov Begun, is charged with shooting indiscriminately at the village, causing property damage.
Both settlers insist they fired in self-defense when attacked by stone-throwing Arabs.
But Judge Wechsler said the fact the suspects would not cooperate with the investigators strengthened the police version of events.