Behind the Headlines: Jewish Settlers Face Prospect of Further West Bank Pullback

Political realities have left the residents of this Jewish settlement feeling grim.

“The people have no power whatsoever,” Yehudit Meir, a woman in her 40s, said during an interview in her spacious villa here. “Once a politician comes to power, he no longer listens to the voice of the people,” referring in the same breath to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Beit El, located near the Palestinian town of Ramallah, is one of the oldest West Bank settlements.

Once it was a center of religious fervor symbolizing the Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful — the people who gave the ideological underpinnings to the West Bank settler movement.

But the mobile homes of old have now become villas.

The young, passionate settlers who founded Beit El 20 years ago have become middle-aged, bourgeois parents.

Located next to an Israeli military camp, Beit El itself seems like a military installation — an armed civilian stands guard at the settlement’s entrance, eyeing visitors suspiciously, but allowing to enter anyone he does not suspect is an Arab.

Once inside a visitor notices that little attention has been paid by the 3,500 residents to the appearance of areas surrounding the homes and community buildings.

There is very little greenery, and a large youth center has shattered windows and a dirty entrance.

Beit El residents have other things to worry about.

Despite much-publicized differences within the Israeli Cabinet over how much West Bank land should be transferred to the Palestinians in the next redeployment, it is clear to some settlers that concessions will be made.

A recent survey conducted for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot showed that some 59 percent of Israelis condone the removal of settlements “for the sake of genuine peace with the Palestinians.”

More surprising, some 22 percent of the settlers polled held the same view.

Beit El residents have a special reason to be concerned.

In a map sponsored by Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Beit El is one of 42 West Bank settlements that would either have to be disbanded or become an island of Israeli sovereignty surrounded by Palestinian-controlled territory.

The map — which is competing with a more hawkish plan outlined by National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon that would keep all the settlements within Israeli controlled areas — was prepared to outline Israeli interests in a final-status agreement.

The Cabinet recently agreed in principle to a further redeployment, but only after a final-status map is drawn up.

Many Beit El residents may be concerned about their future, but fewer than half of the settlement’s 600 families showed up last week to an emergency meeting called by their mayor.

“People are dormant,” said Dvora Dahan, the settlement’s community coordinator, who has lived here for 10 years.

“But it is not a matter of despair,” she added. “It may be a matter of over- complacency.”

Beit El residents believe more strongly than ever that the Oslo accords were a fundamental mistake, but they show little defeatism.

Next week, when the last Chanukah candle is lit, settlers here plan to lay the cornerstone for a new neighborhood, which comes as something of a blow to American calls for a timeout in settlement construction while U.S. officials attempt to put the peace process back on track.

In a further blow to those calls — but a breath of fresh air for the settlers — Netanyahu said last Friday that he has no intention of putting a temporary freeze on settlement construction.

“There is nothing in the Oslo accords that prohibits Israel from building settlements,” Netanyahu told journalists from around the world attending the International Conference on the Jewish Media in Jerusalem.

Declaring that Israel has a right to a presence in the West Bank, he said, “We should be there. This is our land, our homeland. We have differences of opinion over the territory.”

Netanyahu also maintained last week that Israel does not intend to give up any settlements as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.

But within the settler movement there are doubts that the premier intends to live up to his word.

Settler leaders like Menahem Felix of Elon Moreh and Benny Katzover of Karnei Shomron — people who 24 years ago led the settlement campaign in the West Bank — are spearheading protests against Netanyahu, warning that they will seek to bring down his government if he concedes West Bank lands to the Palestinians.

But many Beit El residents are no longer manning the barricades.

Meir, for one, is not joining the protests.

Working for a physical therapist in Jerusalem, she drives into the capital each day along the road known as the Ramallah Bypass.

Built by the Rabin government, the road spares her from driving through Ramallah or nearby Arab villages.

“This is one of the reasons why we may seem indifferent. Daily security has improved,” she said.

“Presently, the Arabs have no interest in heightening the tension along the roads,” she added. “But we have no illusion that one day the Arabs will no longer have such interests. They will also attack us also on the bypasses.”

While she admits that some of her generation have either grown complacent or gotten too caught up with life’s daily demands, she looks to the next generation “to fight for our cause.”

More and more youths from the second generation of the settlements are joining combat units in the army, Meir points out hopefully.

With the eldest of her seven children enrolling in an officers training course next week, Meir hopes that her son and other religious army officers will be able to affect the settlement policies of future governments.

“The real barometer is the youth,” said Meir. “They are idealists. They are willing to fight for the cause. They are angry at us for being too bourgeois. We are proud of them. They will materialize the dreams that we have dreamed.”

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