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Jewish Settlers Shed No Tears for Father of Their Movement

Feeling betrayed by Sharon over the pullout from Gaza, many view his illness as a welcome political development. Some even express glee.

January 08, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

TAPUAH, West Bank — The stony hills of the West Bank are dotted and crossed with Jewish settlements, asphalt roads connecting them and billboards advertising real estate deals: "A quarter-acre and a house for under $90,000!"

This is the land that Ariel Sharon claimed for Israel. As father of the settler movement, he encouraged tens of thousands of Jews to move into the remote hilltop outposts and well-manicured towns that the government built for them. Sharon saw the settlements as vital to the security of the Jewish state.

Yet many settlers believe the prime minister betrayed their cause when he pulled 8,500 Israelis from the Gaza Strip last year after a 38-year occupation, and today they watch his failing health with a mixture of anticipation and, in a few cases, glee.

These settlers, their considerable influence abruptly diminished under Sharon, now sense a new opening. If the prime minister's program of ceding chunks of territory to the Palestinians stalls, as is a real possibility, they see a brighter future for their hold on land they consider to be a biblical birthright.

"The jarring fact is that he was hit from above," said Avraham Hertzlick, a Brooklyn-born shepherd who has lived in Tapuah, a remote settlement about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, for seven years. "He caused such tremendous pain to thousands of Jews, pain beyond measure.... Without a doubt, this was God's punishment."

Sharon's decision to abandon Gaza was a bow to demographic realities, a historic compromise acknowledging that the dream of a Greater Israel was unrealistic. In leaving Gaza, he turned his back on part of his core support, the right-wing settlers movement, while giving new life to Israel's political center.

As Sharon withdrew from Gaza, however, his government continued rapid construction in the West Bank, planned thousands of new housing units in settlements and proceeded with the building of a 450-mile concrete-and-metal wall in and around the West Bank to divide Palestinians and Israelis.

Taken together, the projects have allowed Israel to consolidate its grip on Jerusalem, a city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. In the Palestinian view, the moves also have in effect dictated the borders and configuration of a weakened Palestinian state that Sharon envisioned but that the Palestinians are loath to accept.

"What is Sharon's legacy? Is it the outposts he built, or the outposts he evacuated?" asked leading Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea. "Once he was considered the despot ravenous for territories. Now he is considered a courageous pragmatist."

It is not clear what steps Sharon planned next. The platform of the new political party that he formed, Kadima, states that "parts of the Land of Israel" would have to "be relinquished" to ensure a sovereign, Jewish and democratic state.

In broad strokes, Sharon spoke of a partial withdrawal from the West Bank, but at the same time he favored annexing four large settlement blocks and parts of East Jerusalem. He has never specified how much land he would cede or where, although the path of the wall offers the best hints: As planned, it leaves about 50,000 settlers on the Palestinian side who presumably would have to move.

All told, nearly a quarter of a million Israelis live in about 120 settlements scattered over the length and breadth of the West Bank, according to watchdog organizations that monitor the phenomenon, and small hilltop "outposts" pop up regularly. The West Bank also is home to 3.2 million Palestinians.

"I think he would have carried out small movements in the West Bank but not an extensive withdrawal," said Tamar Hermann, a political analyst at Tel Aviv University. "He was not about to return to the 1967 borders" that existed before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "He would have pulled out of some of the small, isolated settlements that are already out of the public conscience, the same way Gaza was. Gaza was a liability years before he acted there."

Whatever Sharon's plans may have been, the prospects for a West Bank withdrawal now seem dimmer. The prime minister remained critically ill Saturday evening in a Jerusalem hospital, and aides say that even if he survives, he is not expected to return to office. No other politician in the running to replace him is considered sufficiently formidable to execute a settlement evacuation, frequently called "disengagement."

For West Bank settlers, any further pullback, however small, would be seen as another betrayal, and many believe they've gotten a reprieve with the all-but-certain departure of Sharon from Israeli politics.

In Tapuah, home to a number of especially radical religious settlers, a few people cracked open a bottle of wine to celebrate Sharon's illness, and some planned to hand out celebratory candy if he died, settler Hertzlick said.

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