News Analysis: in Palestinian Gunsights, Settlers Find Support Ebbing Within Israel

Since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September, Israeli commentators have adopted a new tactic: publishing open letters to Jewish settlers in Israeli newspapers.

Perhaps the most controversial such letter was written by A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading authors.

Addressing his “brethren” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Yehoshua urged them to pack their belongings and return to Israel, concede that the settlement movement was a mistake and acknowledge that the settlements are among the chief obstacles to peace.

Not surprisingly, his letter triggered angry reactions from settlers, who say that, more than at any time in the past, they are convinced that they are right.

Citing frequent shooting attacks against Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood from a nearby Arab town and the recent terror bombings in Jerusalem and Hadera, the settlers say Palestinians make no distinction between the settlements and locations inside Israel proper.

They also contend that if Israel agrees to dismantle the settlements, it would next face Palestinian demands on Tel Aviv, Haifa or Hadera.

More open letters followed Yehoshua’s.

Over the weekend, Ma’ariv columnist Ya’ir Lapid wrote a letter asking “my brother, the settler” to stop preaching to other Israelis about love of country.

“I love this country no less than you do, and I am tied to it and to its landscapes and its historic memories, which grow here like ancient olive trees. We should not compete with each other in love for country, because we shall both lose,” Lapid wrote.

While settlers may have the right to put themselves in the front lines in the fight for portions of the West Bank and Gaza, more and more Israelis are questioning whether the settlers have the right to raise their children in a war zone.

The question became more urgent after a terror bombing last month on a school bus traveling from the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom left three young siblings severely crippled.

“We are constantly on the alert,” said Yaron Alima, a father of four who lives in the West Bank settlement of Barkan. “The stories of what happened in Kfar Darom are frightening. Every passing car is frightening.”

Alima’s son, Dan, goes to school in the West Bank town of Ariel, a 15-minute ride from Barkan. Although an army guard escorts the school bus, every ride is 15 minutes of fear.

The children are instructed not to stand during the ride, “but if there is a bomb, it’s not too safe on the floor either,” Dan said.

Not all of the estimated 200,000 settlers living in the territories are motivated by ideology.

Increasing numbers of “mortgage settlers” — those who moved to the territories because of the quality of life and cheaper housing– have recently returned to Israel, at least until the current fighting ends.

But settler ideologues insist that those returning to Israel represent only a small minority of the settler population, and that they have been replaced by other families buying homes in the territories.

The Palestinians have made it clear that the settlements are their prime target.

With the exception of the attacks in Jerusalem and Hadera, Palestinian violence has been directed at military and civilian targets in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Palestinians likewise describe their shooting attacks on Gilo as an attack against settlements, since they consider Gilo — a Jerusalem neighborhood built on land conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War — as a settlement.

The Israeli left has long demanded that Israel dismantle certain controversial settlements like Psagot in the West Bank and Netzarim in Gaza.

But most Israelis, even the most enthusiastic supporters of a Palestinian state, will not endorse concessions while the current fighting rages.

As Hirsch Goodman, a leading Israeli journalist, put it, “You do not give in under fire.”

But that sentiment could change if the violence subsides.

Recent polls indicate that most Israelis know that dismantling settlements will be part of the price for peace — and they are willing to pay that price.

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