News Analysis: Confrontation in West Bank Highlights Tension over Settlers

It could have been a scene out of the American Wild West: Jewish settlers and Arab shepherds confronting each other violently this week in the Hebron hills over a piece of land.

Both the settlers and shepherds made the all-too-familiar claim: This West Bank land is my land, and mine alone. The result was also an all-too-familiar one: violence. Dov Dribben, 29, an Israeli was fatally shot in the confrontation.

Dribben’s friends, Yehoshafat Tor and Ephraim Perl, were wounded, as was a Palestinian shepherd.

But while the claims made by the parties in the clash near the settlement of Maon rang familiar, as did the resulting violence, the fatal shooting of Dribben, according to an initial investigation, was not a premeditated terrorist attack. Rather it was a personal dispute over land that escalated into violence.

Whatever the reason, the incident highlights the conundrum that could become a core challenge of the Middle East peace process if it ever moves beyond its more-than-one-year-old stalemate: what to do with the roughly 120,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank.

Because, at some point, if negotiations progress, they will have to focus on this Jewish presence there.

The settlers themselves — whether in Maon, Hebron or Beit El — perceive themselves as pioneers in their own land.

The Palestinians regard them as invaders, while most Israelis view them at best with indifference, and at worst with hostility.

More than 30 years after the resumption of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, on Israel’s 50th anniversary, the settlers are still struggling for legitimacy within their own society.

Of course, a majority of the Jewish residents of the West Bank are settlers by convenience — came to the territories because of inexpensive housing.

But there are also a hard core group of settlers, numbering several thousand, who live in places like Hebron, Beit El and Elon Moreh.

Samech Yizhar, the old sage of Israeli literature, recently described them as people who do not hesitate to rule over others and take advantage of them.

“The settlers and the settlements are a dark stain in the history of modern Israel,” Yizhar wrote this week in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot. “They stain anything humane, Jewish and Zionist.

“If the Jewish religion agrees with their deeds, then it is a religion without morals, and if the people of Israel agrees with them, then it is a people of robbers. It is difficult to believe that a people which was the most persecuted among nations has become yet another savage persecutor and another suppressor of the persecuted,” he wrote.

Of course, the settlers do have their supporters, as evidenced by the thousands of Israelis who rallied in Hebron to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Jewish settlement there.

The conflict that exploded this week in the Hebron hills began a year ago, when Jewish settlers built a farm on territory the Palestinians claimed was theirs.

The settlers, for their part, prevented Palestinian shepherds from grazing their herds on land they considered part of their settlement.

When Dribben spotted a herd of goats near the farm Sunday, he went down to the ravine with his two friends to scare them. Dribben was apparently not armed; his friends were armed with pistols.

As they demanded that the shepherds clear the area, the shepherds apparently attacked, shooting Dribben and his friend Tor.

Perl managed to return to the farm to retrieve his M-16 rifle. As he shot the attackers, they fled, carrying the settlers’ pistols.

Unnamed military sources later criticized the behavior of the setters for contributing to the tragedy. Had the settlers refrained from confronting the shepherds partially unarmed, had they been wise enough not to allow the shepherds to seize their two pistols, the whole incident could have been prevented, the sources said.

Everyone understood the political implications of the attack. The settlers of Maon rushed to issue a statement that the event was not a conflict between shepherds, but rather “an attempt by local Arabs to take over lands belonging to the settlement of Maon, which are state lands.”

The settlers won unexpected support from Israeli President Ezer Weizman. The president visited Dribben’s widow on Monday and told her he had no doubt, in contrast to the results of the preliminary investigations, that this was a deliberate murder with a nationalist motive.

The Palestinian Authority, interestingly enough, refrained this week from playing up the confrontation at Maon — perhaps because it wanted to keep the focus on the plight of the Palestinian refugees, which was brought to the surface during British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visits to refugee camps in Amman, Jordan and the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, such conflicts between Palestinians and settlers have become a matter of daily routine. Just a few hours after the fatal confrontation at Maon, Israeli soldiers and Palestinians confronted each other over a Palestinian construction project near Morag in the Gaza Strip. There, no one was hurt.

Leaders of the settlers, like Elyakim Haetzni of Kiryat Arba, have repeatedly claimed that had the politicians stayed away, the settlers would have gotten along just fine with their Arab neighbors.

But another settler, a former director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, recently presented a different approach: separation.

In a proposal similar to one made by the former Labor government, Avigdor Lieberman suggested the separation of Jews and Palestinians inside the West Bank by developing several hundred miles of roads, which would allow Jews to travel freely without passing through Palestinian population centers. Palestinians, for their part, could travel throughout the West Bank, without having to stop every few miles before an army roadblock.

“Just like in Eastern Europe, first there should be separation, than cooperation,” said Lieberman in a recent interview. “Look what happened in Yugoslavia. Everyone fought each other, but once they managed to separate, cooperation began immediately. This is our only practical chance here.”

Meanwhile, as the politicians continue to bandy about plans, the number of victims of the conflict continues to grow.

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