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Next Step : Standing Their Ground in Golan : Jewish settlers launch a propaganda war against proposals to return any land to Syria. They accuse Rabin of preparing to betray them.

October 04, 1994|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSHAV RAMOT, Occupied Golan Heights — Avi Pinkas moved to this small farming community 15 years ago, when it was made up of little more than a rock-strewn hillside and a handful of tiny, makeshift houses.

"We felt at the forefront of the settlers' movement. We were encouraged by all the government agencies to come here," recalled the soft-spoken Pinkas, now 42.

Today, he and the rest of the estimated 16,000 Israelis living in 33 settlements on the Golan Heights are again at the fore. But this time, the settlers fear, they are about to become the first line of Israel's next withdrawal from territories it captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

The Golan settlers dread Secretary of State Warren Christopher's next scheduled visit to the region, due to begin Sunday Christopher is reported to be prepared to shuttle intensively between Jerusalem and Damascus, determined to narrow the still-substantial gaps between Israel's offer--a phased, partial withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for normal relations with Syria--and the demand by Damascus for an almost immediate full withdrawal in return for gradual normalization.

Christopher is encouraged, both by signs that Syria is serious about making progress and by the increasingly bold statements that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other Labor Party officials are making. Rabin and his colleagues now speak publicly, and often, about the need for Israel to make a "painfully deep" withdrawal from the strategic heights in exchange for peace.

Last month, Rabin revealed that he has offered Syria a two-stage withdrawal from the Golan, trading an undefined amount of territory for a peace treaty.

His proposal was greeted with outrage and a vow to fight back from the people of the Golan. Golan settlers--most of whom, like Pinkas, support Rabin and the Labor Party he heads--say their way of life is about to be destroyed by a party they accuse of betraying not only them but also the values it has always represented.

"When you immigrate to Israel from a Western country, you are not running away from anything," said Marla Van Meter, a former resident of Santa Maria, Calif., who has lived in Kibbutz Afiq on the Golan for 11 years. "You come with a lot of ideology. When my husband and I went to the immigration desk in San Francisco and told them we wanted to move to the Golan, they said: 'What good Zionists!' It was always part of Labor ideology to spread Jews around the land of Israel."

Van Meter and her husband, Dennis, moved to Kibbutz Afiq when it was still a young settlement. She became the head gardener. He is in charge of the avocado orchards. Their daughter, named Kinnert--Hebrew for the Sea of Galilee--and their son, Golan, were born on the kibbutz.

"This is the only home my children have ever known," said Van Meter, 36, a wiry triathlon competitor. She said she volunteered to become a spokeswoman for Golan settlements because she was alarmed by the government's negotiations with Syria.

"What does (Syrian President Hafez) Assad need this land for, to save face?" she asked, her voice rising in anger.

After Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War, young Israelis, steeped in the pioneering spirit of the center-left Labor Party, saw a chance to fulfill the Zionist dream of redeeming the land with none of the complications presented by the West Bank, Gaza Strip or Sinai Desert.

Settlers who came to the Golan knew they were backed by a national consensus that security required Israel to keep that slice of southern Syria from which the enemy had rained shells on Israeli positions below. There were no Palestinians living on the plateau that separates northeast Israel from its most implacable foe, only Druze villagers in the far north.

Most of those who settled the Golan were politically liberal. They say they have nothing in common with the right-wing settlers who have built homes in the West Bank. Golan settlers say they would never dream of violently opposing any government decision taken on the fate of the heights.

Pinkas, Van Meter and other Golan residents interviewed uniformly agreed that the time probably has come for Israel to pull out of the West Bank and that Rabin's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip was a good decision.

"It was wrong to try to rule the lives of 1.5 million Arabs," Pinkas said.

But on the Golan, Van Meter insisted, "the human rights issue is the issue of the Jews who are living here. We displaced no one. We are the ones who will be displaced."

Pinkas and his wife, Rikki, invested years of back-breaking labor to transform their 12 rocky, sloping acres into a successful farm. Today, Pinkas greets guests in the four-bedroom home he built with his own hands. Each of his three children has a separate bedroom. Pinkas has planted vineyards and orchards and exports fruit to Europe.

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