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Israeli Settlers See the Writing on the Wall

Many are worried about being left outside the barrier the government is building in the West Bank, and some want money to move out now.

January 01, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

TENE OMARIM, West Bank — The fence under construction appears as a distant scratch on the parched landscape below this ridge-top Israeli settlement. For Boaz Lavi, the project is a sign that it may be time to leave.

Lavi is among an estimated 80,000 residents of Jewish settlements who are to be left outside the barrier Israel is erecting in and around the West Bank -- a structure many Israelis and Palestinians believe will soon act as a de facto boundary, if not a formal border, with a future Palestinian state.

Many settlers fear being cut off from Israel or evicted if the government mandates a withdrawal like the one that occurred last summer in the Gaza Strip. A growing number of them, backed by peace activists, are pressing the government to pay them to move to Israel now and vacate land the Palestinians want for their own country.

"There is no reason to stay here. We have to evacuate ourselves in a short time," said Lavi, 55, a retired army colonel who moved to the rocky hills south of Hebron 16 years ago for the views, and for parcels made affordable by government aid.

"I love this place, but I'd leave it," he said, poring over a map of the southern West Bank. "It doesn't leave any option -- to stay here like a fool on the hill. It can help no one."

Various compensation plans have been proposed, and two bills on the matter await action in parliament. But the basic idea is a government buyout of settlers' homes, akin to the payments offered to the 8,000 or so people evacuated from Gaza and four small communities in the northern West Bank.

The effort faces an uphill battle. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has brushed aside the idea of voluntary evacuations, and the main West Bank settlers group dismisses the drive as largely the work of Israel's peace camp.

Although settler leaders acknowledge that many Israelis living in the West Bank are on edge about the possibility of further withdrawals, they say the number who would leave now is small.

"It's not a phenomenon," said Shaul Goldstein, who heads the local council for the Gush Etzion settlement block south of Jerusalem. "It's manipulation."

Lawmaker Avshalom Vilan of the dovish Meretz-Yahad party said his evacuation campaign, called One Home, could help as many as 80,000 settlers who would be left on the "Palestinian" side of the barrier. That is about a third of the approximately 230,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. He said it would cost $3 billion to $4 billion to compensate families to avoid additional forced evacuations.

Vilan said many settlements outside the barrier would be surrendered in a peace deal or, short of that, perhaps emptied through a unilateral move by Israel. Once the barrier is finished, such communities may become ready targets for Palestinian gunmen, he said.

"The fence has changed the whole situation," Vilan said. "Why should these people have to stay there like pawns on a chessboard?"

The idea of voluntary evacuation is most likely to appeal to secular residents, such as Lavi, who were drawn to the settlements for their relatively inexpensive lots and rural, often scenic surroundings. Settlers who moved to the West Bank for ideological reasons, such as bolstering a Jewish claim to the biblical land of Israel, are less likely to be interested.

But speculation that more settlements will be evacuated has grown since Sharon's dramatic decision in November to abandon the right-wing Likud Party and form a centrist movement. Sharon, seeking reelection in March, says he has no plans for further unilateral pullbacks.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who joined Sharon in leaving Likud, further unnerved settlers recently by suggesting that the barrier would influence the course of a future permanent border. The draft platform by Sharon's new party, Kadima, or Forward, calls for giving up more land to the Palestinians as part of any negotiated peace agreement. The draft, published in December in the daily newspaper Maariv, says the existence of the Israeli state will require ceding part of biblical Israel.

The planned 450-mile divider, which is about one-third complete and is scheduled to be finished this year, wends well inside the West Bank for stretches to enclose settlements nearest to Israel. Israeli leaders say the barrier has proved effective at keeping out suicide bombers, but Palestinians charge that Israel is seizing land and setting de facto borders without negotiating.

Settlers say they still don't know what route the barrier will take in some spots or whether their communities will be left outside. The Israeli government has approved in principle a route that would enclose some of the largest settlement blocks.

Residents in Tene Omarim have gone to court to fight government plans to erect the divider along a route that would exclude them by about two miles.

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