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News Analysis: Palestinians Target Settlements Before Barak Forms Government

To all appearances, this West Bank town is thriving. The streets are humming with traffic, a central street market offers a rich variety of fruits and vegetables and Israeli bargain-hunters can often be seen shopping in the narrow alleys of the casbah, or old town.

The scene is a change from the ugly days of the intifada, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising.

But the sense of prosperity is only a mirage, according to Palestinian official Hassan Ayoub.

“We have more than 30 percent unemployment, and the land in the neighboring villages is shrinking constantly because of Jewish settlers,” he says.

Ayoub is head of a local Palestinian office, the Protection of the Land and Action Against Settlements, part of a broad Palestinian initiative that is moving into full gear even before Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak forms his government.

Ayoub’s office, which is guarded by a heavy metal door that always remains locked, is located in an office building in downtown Nablus.

Working inside are several former members of the militant National Front for the Liberation of Palestine, including Ayoub, who used to be on Israel’s most- wanted list.

Behind the heavy door, the officials whom Israel used to regard as terrorists are now engaged in a new kind of war — an intensive campaign against Jewish settlements.

They have prepared maps that are updated with the names of Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements; they have records of every mobile home that Jewish settlers have moved into the region; and they have accumulated the names of influential Israeli journalists — all part of their plan to launch an anti- settlement campaign in the Israeli media before Barak takes office.

“The settlements are the core of the problem in the eyes of the Palestinians,” says Tayssir Khaled, a member of the 18-member PLO Executive Committee. “The settlements embody the Israeli occupation.”

There is nothing new in Khaled’s statements. What is new is the sense of urgency.

And while the Palestinians are going on the offensive, settler leaders have grown defensive in the wake of last week’s Israeli elections.

With the passing of the days when their efforts were championed by the government of outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the settlers are now trying to hold onto their previously achieved territorial gains.

And, with this in mind, some of their leaders are even calling on the Likud Party to join a Barak government.

Pinchas Wallerstein, who resigned as chairman of the Settlers Council within days after Netanyahu’s election defeat, admits that the main settlement drive is now over.

“Our strength depends now on our determination to preserve our achievements,” he says. “If Barak tries to dismantle settlements, our internal strength will count much more than one hill or another.”

Indeed, the last months of the Netanyahu government saw increased settlement activity.

Since the signing of the Wye agreement last October, 19 new settlements sprang up in the West Bank, according to the Peace Now movement.

While many of the new “settlements” were sometimes nothing more than a few shacks or mobile homes intended to create facts on the ground, and while they were often set up within originally planned settlement boundaries, the Palestinians took such efforts very seriously.

And if there was any doubt about where the government stood, Ariel Sharon made it clear late last year, when after his appointment as foreign minister he urged settlers to claim “every West Bank hill.”

Even as late as May 7 — 10 days before Israel’s elections — settlers protected by the army laid a claim to land near Nablus.

Even before Barak began his coalition negotiations this week, the Palestinian Cabinet, meeting over the weekend in Nablus, issued a communique urging the incoming Israeli government to order the cessation of all construction activity throughout the territories.

And last week, the Palestinian observer to the United Nations asked the U.N. Security Council to press Israel to stop construction for Jewish housing at two sites in eastern Jerusalem — Har Homa and Ras al-Amud — that Netanyahu had approved only days before last week’s Israeli elections.

With their latest initiative, Palestinian officials are trying to tone down some of the euphoria sounded in the Arab world in the wake of Netanyahu’s election defeat.

Where settlements are concerned, Palestinian officials do not want to give Barak the traditional 100-day honeymoon.

Instead, they want action now to renew the sense of urgency regarding settlements.

For Palestinian officials such as Khaled, the ultimate goal is nothing less than the dismantling of all settlements.

“First they must vacate the hills they have taken over in the past few months,” Khaled says. “But in the final-status negotiations, they will all have to go.”

For his part, Barak gave a major clue this week as to where he stands on the settlement issue. In a 10-point plan outlining his policies, he says a majority of Jewish settlers would live in settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty, implying that smaller settlements would be dismantled.

For settler leaders, meanwhile, caution is the prevailing sentiment.

Aharon Domb, the secretary-general of the Settlers Council, is one of those who believes that Likud should join a Barak coalition.

“The upcoming year is a year of fateful decisions, and it is not right to be in the opposition at this time,” he says.

Other settler leaders are adopting similar stances.

Eliezer Hissdai, the mayor of Alfei Menashe, spoke over the weekend of the need to stop “the struggle over the hills.”

Uri Silberman, mayor of the regional council of the South Hebron Mountains, wrote in an open letter to settlers in the region, “The local leadership should not be power-hungry, militant, arrogant and conservative. The local leadership should be quiet and wise, and should know how to create a dialogue.”

Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, also believes in engaging the Palestinians in dialogue.

“I offered the mayor of the neighboring town of Salfit cooperation in developing a sewage project,” Nachman says. “At first he was interested, but then he asked for the permission of the Palestinian Authority.

“Obviously permission was not granted.”

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