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News Analysis: Terrorist Attack Rekindles Debate over Status of Jewish Settlements

SETTLEMENTS Last week’s terrorist attack near a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip has rekindled a public debate within Israel regarding the role of settlements in the peace process.

The question: to keep the settlements or dismantle them? The issue is divisive even at the highest levels of the government.

No settlement has figured more prominently in the controversy than Netzarim, where three Israeli soldiers stationed at a checkpoint near the settlement were killed by a suicide bomber on a bicycle last Friday.

The settlement only has some 28 Jewish families living in the shadow of Gaza City and remains isolated from other Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, which was officially handed over to Palestinian self-rule in May.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, repeating a stance he has taken in the past, told the Knesset on Monday that Netzarim had “no justification – no from a Zionist standpoint, not from a security standpoint and not from an economic standpoint.”

Nor is he alone in his opinion.

An Israeli television station this week conducted an unofficial poll of Cabinet ministers that showed a solid majority in favor of immediately dismantling Netzarim and similar settlement outposts in the West Bank.

Israelis and Palestinian negotiators decided to postpone the thorny issue of settlements until 1996, when the two sides are scheduled to negotiate the permanent status of Palestinian autonomy.

While his ministers may favor dismantlement, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared unequivocally Tuesday that there would be no such steps taken at this time.

“That is what we demanded in the negotiations” over the terms of the Palestinian self-rule accord, Rabin told reporters during a visit to the Katif bloc of settlements inside Gaza. That is what the Palestinians agreed to, he said, adding, “I intend to carry out that agreement precisely.”

Rabin’s visit to Gaza was seen as symbolically significant – signaling at once his moral support for the Jewish settlers there and his determination to press ahead with the Israel-Palestinian peace process despite the recent wave of terrorist incidents.

Soldiers serving at the site were again the victims of an attack early Tuesday, though this time none were hurt. They reported that gunfire was directed at their position under cover of darkness, a situation that has happened more than once in the recent past.

Rabin was quoted last week by Army Radio as saying that twice as many soldiers were protecting the approximately 110,000 Israeli settlers living in predominantly Palestinian population areas than were deployed in southern Lebanon, Israel’s only remaining active war front.

Along with Netzarim, another Jewish settlement considered vulnerable to attack is one comprising some 40 families living at several sites inside the West Bank town of Hebron, which has a Palestinian population of about 70,000.

Peres has repeatedly indicated that the Hebron settlement should also be dismantled immediately – but here, too, he finds himself at loggerheads with the prime minister.

The prospect of the government moving to dismantle any settlement in the imminent future is not considered likely – if only because even the pro- dismantlement lobby within the Cabinet is anxious to avoid any impression of surrender to the terror tactics of the Islamic fundamentalist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Education Minister Amnon Rubinstein of the Meretz bloc said Tuesday that he had always opposed the creation of these isolated settlements and was in favor of their removal.

“But not if it looks like we are backing down in the face of terrorism,” he added.

The rekindled debate over these exposed settlements has had a significant byproduct: It has brought many political figures, including Rabin himself, to clarify their positions regarding the ultimate fate of the settlements.

The prime minister plainly implied in his statements in Gaza on Tuesday that if the peace process continues as undertaken by the two sides and reaches the “permanent status” talks, it will lead to the removal of at least some of the present settlements.

But while the majority of the members of the governing coalition favor dismantlement, the Likud-led opposition remains adamantly committed to the continuing existence of the settlements.

All current settlements, they say, even those located close to major Palestinian population centers, have the right to stay put, and any permanent- status agreement with the Palestinians will have to accommodate the settlers.

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