Behind the Headlines: Settlers Mount Drive to Define Israeli Sphere on the West Bank
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Behind the Headlines: Settlers Mount Drive to Define Israeli Sphere on the West Bank

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Wearing loose, trendy pants and a colorful beaded necklace, Moran Mor hardly looks like a stereotypical West Bank female settler, many of whom sport long, modest skirts and head coverings.

Three months ago, Mor, a 23-year-old student of alternative medicine, moved into one of 12 mobile homes on this hilltop near the Ma’aleh Michmash settlement, which commands a spectacular view of Jerusalem and the Judean Desert.

“This is a beautiful place,” she says. “Look at the view, it’s so calm and relaxed.”

But as Mor explains why she came to live in these sparse conditions, it becomes clear she is not here just for a room with a view.

She is one of many settlers who have joined a settlement drive and recently moved into new sites throughout the West Bank, often setting up homes in shacks.

The drive has angered Palestinians, who argue that Israel is trying to create new facts on the ground that will affect the amount of West Bank land handed over to them in future negotiations. It has also drawn repeated criticism of American officials, who describe settlements as obstacles to peace.

While the various sides dispute whether new settlements are being created or existing settlements are being expanded, one point is agreed to by all: If one connects the dots on the map where Jewish settlers are now living, the amount of territory on which their homes are placed is now larger than it was before – – and this land will not easily be negotiated away to the Palestinians.

Officially, the Israeli government’s policy has been to allow for the “natural growth” of settlements, but not to create new ones.

“We are not grabbing another inch of land,” said David Bar-Illan, the prime minister’s spokesman. “We’re just doing it within those areas” already designated for settlements. “It’s totally irrelevant to talk about more land. There is nothing unilateral about continuing to build in the settlements.”

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics recently reported that the Jewish settler population grew 7 percent last year to 172,000 — slower than the 9 percent increase in settlers in 1997, but much faster than the general population growth of 2.3 percent.

Mitzpe Danny, named after Danny Frei, a Michmash settler who in 1995 was stabbed to death in his home by a Palestinian, is located in the central Jordan Valley. There are few Palestinian villages here, and many Israelis hope these areas will remain part of Israel under a final-status agreement.

But most of the 20 new settlements that have sprouted on hilltops since the Wye accord was signed last October are in the heart of the West Bank and near Palestinian villages.

Peace Now, which monitors — and repeatedly criticizes — settlement activity, says roads are being paved and hilltops razed at about 20 additional sites, which the group says is a telltale sign of another round of settlements yet to come.

Settlers, who along with their opponents agree that the settlement drive is enjoying government support, insist that the new sites are located within master building plans of existing settlements within the territory originally envisioned for each settlement.

Peace Now says it is extremely difficult to get access to the master plans.

“In any case, the master plans have a lot more to do with politics than urban planning,” says Didi Remez, the settlement watch coordinator for Peace Now. “The settlers know that occupied land is much less negotiable.”

Aharon Domb, the director of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says some 32 new sites have been settled in the past two years.

“All of the sites are part of the settlements’ master plans, and all have been legally approved,” he says, then adds, “We built even more new sites during the government of Yitzhak Rabin.”

For settlers like Mor, these new sites are just as things should be.

“We must settle these lands,” she says. “I am in favor of every new settlement that is being set up. If we don’t settle here, they [the Palestinians] will take over the entire area.”

Like Mor, who was raised in the settlement of Ofra, many of the new pioneers at these sites are second generation settlers, the 20-something children of the founders of the original Gush Emunim settlement movement.

They are motivated by the ideology of their parents that maintains all of the biblical Land of Israel is the birthright of the Jews.

But they are also driven by a post-Oslo strategic understanding that the future of this land will likely be decided at the negotiating table, not by divine intervention.

With Israeli elections scheduled for May 17, the settlements are playing a big role in the campaign.

Amid increasing public opposition to funding settlements instead of infrastructure projects after a three-year economic slowdown, Ehud Barak, the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister, is promising to dry up funding for the settlements.

Some politicians are questioning whether settlement construction is indeed being approved to accommodate a community’s natural growth.

Last weekend, Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, strolled through an empty neighborhood in the Eli settlement with a film crew in an effort to contradict government claims that the settlements are bursting from overpopulation.

His shouts of “Anybody out there?” echoed off the empty homes.

Some settlers admit that the manner of some growth is not entirely “natural.”

At Ma’aleh Michmash, several hilltops and two fields hugging the settlement remain barren, while settlers have placed their mobile homes atop this hill about a half-mile away from the main road.

“There has been a jump of sorts,” says one Mitzpe Danny settler. “Through natural growth of Michmash, we might only have reached this hilltop in 20 years.”

The leap is even more dramatic at Mitzpe Hagit a few miles down the road.

Shimon Ben-Dor, a moderate settler and designer of Judaica who insists he will leave quietly should the government ever ask, lives here alongside his three dogs, a water tank and an Israeli flag.

The settlement is legal, he says, because it falls within the jurisdiction of Kfar Adumim, the nearest settlement, which is visible in the distance more than two miles away across a spectacular desert valley.

“It is very important that we stake a claim to as much land as possible in this area, where there are no Arab villages, and establish facts on the ground,” Ben-Dor says. “Eventually, I hope we can establish territorial contiguity with the nearby settlements.”

U.S. officials do not hide their frustration with the activity.

“We have been repeatedly promised by the Israeli government, at all levels, that they were not going to take any unilateral actions that would undermine final-status negotiations,” said one American diplomat.

However, aside from tougher talk, the U.S. is not pressuring Israel on the settlements, as Palestinian officials have requested.

“The settlement activities are really creating a pressure-cooker situation,” warns Saeb Erekat, a chief Palestinian peace negotiator. “It could get out of hand at any time.”

So far, with little Palestinian opposition in the streets or near the settlements, Israel’s high-stakes settlement activity appears likely to continue.

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