May 2, 2006

Israeli settlers in West Bank try to regroup

By Dean Yates

SHILO, West Bank (Reuters) - Yisrael Medad proudly shows a
visitor around this Israeli settlement perched high on a hill
in the heart of the occupied West Bank.

He points out a vineyard in a valley below where the Jewish
settlers of Shilo make wine. Other settlers tend nectarine
trees while some work in a small factory producing door frames.

As he watches children get off buses from nearby
settlements to attend Shilo's school, Medad struggles to
comprehend the government's plan to uproot dozens of Jewish
enclaves, likely including his own community of 1,500 people.

"It would send a message of total, absolute defeatism,"
said the tall settler leader, a former New Yorker who moved to
Shilo in 1981.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert aims to evacuate
settlements across large parts of the West Bank while
strengthening major blocs if peacemaking with the Palestinians
remains frozen.

He has vowed to set Israel's borders by 2010 with or
without Palestinian agreement, tracing the frontier along a
barrier being built in the West Bank.

Palestinians see settlements as a hated symbol of
occupation. They have said Olmert's unilateral "convergence"
plan would not foster peace and would annex land they want for
a state in the West Bank and in Gaza, which Israel quit last

Olmert, whose Kadima Party won March elections, has formed
a coalition government which is due to be sworn in on Thursday.
On paper, the coalition has enough seats to push through his
plan for the West Bank.

Settler leaders are trying to shape a strategy to fight
Olmert, but they also need to rebuild after their right-wing
support base foundered at the elections.

Although there was some confusion about what to do next,
some pledged to go door-to-door to hammer home what they see as
the threat from rockets fired by Palestinian militants if
Israel withdraws from the land settlers see as a biblical

Any withdrawal could allow militants to get closer to the
so-called "Green Line" boundary that separated the Jewish state
and the West Bank before the 1967 Middle East war.

"We will show people the maps ... The terrorists will be on
the mountains and shoot rockets at us," said Emily Amrusy,
spokeswoman for the settlers' YESHA council.


Olmert's unilateralism appeals to many Israelis worn down
by a Palestinian uprising and concerned by the rise to power of
Hamas after the Islamic militant group won elections in

Under his plan, a quarter of the 240,000 settlers living
among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank could be
uprooted. The World Court brands all settlements illegal.
Israel disputes this.

YESHA might be ready to compromise on unauthorized
outposts, Amrusy said, referring to small communities living in
caravans, shipping containers or tents on hilltops.

She said YESHA might suggest that some outposts, perhaps 30
percent of the around 100 set up without Israeli permission, be
evacuated while the rest should be legalized. But those to go
would have to be mainly uninhabited, she added.

For Olmert, getting the United States, Israel's closest
ally, on board is vital.

He expects to visit Washington to present the outlines of
his proposals to President George W. Bush in a meeting around
May 23, Israeli government sources have said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has left open the
possibility Washington would back the unilateral steps, but
said the administration preferred a negotiated end to the

The chances of that seem increasingly remote now that Hamas
is in power. Olmert has said he will wait a reasonable time for
Hamas to change its stance, recognize Israel and disarm -- all
points the group has previously scorned.

Gershom Gorenberg, author of a recent book on the history
of the settlements, said Olmert wanted to move fast on his
plans as Israeli coalitions rarely serve out their full terms
and because Bush's tenure ends in January 2009.

"(Olmert) would like to have some sort of agreement with
the United States that it supports this and recognizes Israel's
new boundaries before there is any change in Washington," he


Gorenberg, who supports the evacuations, said the March
polls were the sharpest statement yet from the Israeli public
about the issue since the 1967 war led to settlement building.

"Overall the large majority of the Israeli electorate has
accepted that the settlement enterprise is a quagmire and now
the question is how do we get out at the lowest cost," he said.

While many settlers in Gaza believed divine intervention
would halt the pullout of 8,500 settlers last year, few seem to
have illusions about the West Bank. Some settlers are putting
on hold plans to extend or renovate their homes, settlers said.

"I can imagine it happening because I saw it in Gaza," said
social worker Yael Avraham, 49, as sun streamed in the window
of her home in Shilo, a community of ideological settlers,
established in 1978 about 45 km (30 miles) north of Jerusalem.

"The elections were very bad. The people of Israel don't
know about these places, the roots of the nation are here."

Some say that if the pullout goes ahead, violence could
erupt that would make protests over the Gaza withdrawal seem
tame. Fervent ideological and religious currents run through
many of the settlements likely to be dismantled.

At Ofra, a settlement south of Shilo which would probably
also be uprooted, the sense of betrayal runs deep.

Many settlers had previously voted for former Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon, a long-time champion of their movement.
But after the Gaza pullout, Sharon left right-wing Likud to
form Kadima before suffering a stroke in January that left him

"After Gush Katif I don't think anyone will say that it
will not happen," said Elisheva Levin, a 43-year-old mother of
eight, referring to the main bloc in the former Gaza

"I hope we can stop the plan," added Yechezkel Schatz, 36,
who works for a software firm, "but I realize I am limited in
what I can do."