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MIDEAST PEACE PLAN

Settlements Pose Daunting Challenge

The debate surrounding the enclaves in the West Bank and Gaza Strip speaks to the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

May 04, 2003|Ruth Morris | Special to The Times

SHILOH, West Bank — Sooner or later, the road to peace in the Middle East will have to pass through here.

Gathered on a dust-blown lot in this craggy valley, residents of the Jewish settlement of Shiloh held an impromptu cornerstone ceremony recently, staking their latest claim to biblical lands.

"We know it's ours," said David Rubin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., surveying the soft brown slopes of the West Bank from a plastic lawn chair in his backyard. His son, perched on his lap, wore a golden Burger King crown.

"This is the heart of Israel," he said. "All parts need to be settled and developed."

Less than a mile down the hill, Palestinian farmer Abdullah Awad pointed to a wide security clearing dug by Shiloh settlers. In the process, he said, bulldozers uprooted his family's knotted olive grove, along with fig and plum trees.

"It's like someone is slaughtering us slowly. They want to push us out," Awad said, as a relative in an embroidered dress picked spearmint sprigs nearby. "This land was inherited from my grandfather and my great-grandfather. We won't leave it."

Sorting out the tangled settlement issue is one of the most formidable tasks on the agenda as international mediators begin work on a Middle East peace plan released Wednesday by the Bush administration. Among other things, the proposal calls for creation of a provisional Palestinian state as early as the end of this year and an immediate freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians hope to build their future state.

The plan, known as the "road map," is geared toward ending 31 months of violence since the latest Palestinian uprising began.

But as Shiloh's cornerstone ceremony demonstrated, Jewish settlers remain set on growth, and they enjoy a considerable degree of support among Israeli officials. For their part, Palestinians see the settlers as usurpers, and they want the suburban-style housing tracts removed from a landscape of wheat fields and refugee camps.

"Settlements are the primary obstacle to any peace process," Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned just before winning approval for his Cabinet on Tuesday, which in turn cleared the way for the publication of the U.S.-led peace initiative.

Settlement communities "continue to be the major threat to the creation of a Palestinian state with genuine sovereignty," Abbas said in his address.

Even before the road map was presented to Palestinian and Israeli leaders, settlement advocates were digging trenches around their position. Members of the pro-settlement Yesha Council met to discuss an alternative plan, dubbed the "canton map," which would deny Palestinians a right to statehood and keep settlements secure.

"If the road map is implemented, I believe this will lead to the destruction of Israel," said Yehiel Hazan, a member of parliament from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party and a leader of the settlement lobby. Hazan said 22 of the 120 Israeli lawmakers supported his view that settlements must be protected.

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A Symbolic Gesture

Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of parliament and a Likud member, attended Shiloh's small but symbolic cornerstone ceremony April 22. The gesture was meant to counter an interview with Sharon, a longtime champion of the settlement movement, in which the prime minister hinted that he was prepared to dismantle some Jewish communities in the West Bank to pave the way for peace.

From his hilltop perch at Shiloh, Rubin dismissed Sharon's comments. "Some things are meant for international consumption," he said.

At Shiloh, roughly 200 families live among overgrown gardens and potholed streets. A small general store sells instant coffee and kosher groceries, while girls on bicycles sport long skirts over their jeans in line with Orthodox dictates.

About 200,000 Jewish settlers live in 150 such communities inside the West Bank and Gaza -- land they believe was promised to them by God.

"I cannot believe that in order to achieve peace, I and other people here have to leave our homes," said Yisrael Medad, another Shiloh settler.

Israeli law allows for "natural growth" inside Jewish settlements, meaning builders can erect homes, shops and swing sets to accommodate the children of families already living there. But critics say the government has turned a blind eye while settlers stake out new, illegal outposts on rocky, isolated hilltops. These bleak outcroppings may be nothing more than a tin shack, and some are even uninhabited, but each marks a new frontier for settlers, and a new affront for Palestinians.

The government also encourages settlement by offering tax breaks and low-interest housing loans to settlement residents, critics charge.

"Every day that passes, more people are going to live in the outposts," said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for the Israeli group Peace Now. "Sharon is giving the settlers enough rope to do whatever they like."

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