Israeli settlements spread, defying U.S.


ARIEL SETTLEMENT, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Ron Nachman lowered the shatterproof window of his car and looked east across eight miles of rocky hillside, beyond a smattering of row houses to the campus of the Judea and Samaria College.

"This whole space will be for Ariel," Mr. Nachman, mayor of this settlement of 10,000, said proudly. "Eventually, we will be 100,000 here."

Mr. Nachman's projection for growth in Ariel alone is slightly less than the entire Israeli population now living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it suggests that despite pressure from Washington, Israel has no intention of freezing construction in the occupied territories.

"We are not embryos that somebody -- even a very significant person -- can freeze us," Mr. Nachman said.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III has called expansion of the settlements a major obstacle to peace, and Bush administration sources say privately that Washington might not guarantee $10 billion in low-interest loans for immigrant absorption in September if Israel continues to build in the occupied territories.

Though Washington always has opposed Israeli settlements in the lands won in the 1967 war, Israel has used the absence of a peace agreement to plant a Jewish presence in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We created an irreversible situation, and no pressure from America will change it," Mr. Nachman said.

Now, Israeli settlers and government officials alike appear to bristle at Washington's setting conditions on the loan guarantees in the name of promoting peace negotiations. Yesterday, Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai said that Israel would make do without the loans if it had to.

"I do not underestimate American assistance, but one should not overestimate it," Mr. Modai said. "We are not one of the American states, and certainly not an American colony."

Palestinians from villages bordering the Jewish settlements point bitterly to the spread of Jewish settlements as proof that Israel is not interested in a peace agreement that could result in a Palestinian homeland here.

"If they want peace, why every day do they want to build a new settlement?" asked Nasfat Khuffash. "This government is not thinking about peace. It only wants to bring the Jews from all the world to our land and then talk about how to force all the Palestinians from our land."

Communities such as Ariel make no apologies for spilling over the West Bank and doing everything to attract more Jews to the territories.

"We don't stand in the way of peace," said Dina Shalit, an assistant to the mayor. "We stand in the way of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria."

Sunday, Ariel held a jobs fair, hiring 80 Jews who started work the following day and who might make their homes at the settlement.

Next month, Menachem Gilboa will open the first Jewish hotel in the West Bank, complete with swimming pool and 103 rooms and suites.

He has already sold 32 of the hotel's units to foreigners, "people who want to support Israel's security," he said. "And if Bush wants to tell us that we can't grow, then all the more reason for me to build."

Ariel is also building a campus for the College of Judea and Samaria, which now holds classes for 1,500 students at a high-technology industrial park, with mobile homes standing in as dormitories.

And construction is continuing on housing that should allow Ariel to double its population in four years.

Unlike residents of religious Jewish settlements, the people of Ariel more often explain their presence on occupied Arab land in terms of security.

"If instead of me sitting on my balcony there was Yasser Arafat, there would be no normal life in Israel," Mr. Nachman said. "This road in front of Ariel cuts Israel in two."

The settlement does not grow from the center out, but fixes various anchors at the farthest points of the territory -- the college, the houses, the industrial base, the hotel -- with plans for growth in the spaces between them.

To Israelis here, stopping development would discourage people from buying houses and businesses from investing. "To freeze a town that was built with a growth factor in mind is like saying, 'Kill this town,' " Mrs. Shalit said.

But the Palestinians down the hill in Marda complain that their development has been frozen to make way for Ariel, which is partially built on land Marda claims as its own and which diverts much of Marda's water supply.

"We cannot build in the direction of the settlement, and we cannot build in the direction of the road," Mr. Khuffash said.

While Mr. Gilboa's workers put the finishing touches on the hotel's swimming pool, the women of Marda descend a dark, winding stairway in a place that appears to be half building and half cave, to collect buckets of water.

Some Palestinian families pay for water in the summer, when the water in the well runs low, and the farmers raise olives, which depend on rainwater. Recently, the Israeli Civil Administration refused Marda's request for permission to run water pipes from the well to bring water into the houses.

Recently, the 1,500 people of Marda were told that more of their titled land would be taken for Ariel's expansion. Linda Brayer, a lawyer representing Marda, said the Israeli custodian of abandoned property would designate some abandoned property as state land, an unprecedented step.

Property is considered abandoned here if the owner was away from home during the 1967 war and is prevented by Israeli law from returning.

"They're destroying the infrastructure of a society," Ms. Brayer said. "What they're doing under the guise of military orders is stealing the land."

Despite their difficulties, or perhaps because of them, the people of Marda do not place much hope or faith in peace negotiations.

"The only way to stop their hand in taking our land is force," said Ra'afat Khuffash. "If I want to negotiate, how can I support my idea if I don't have force behind me?" Asked who would benefit more from peace, he was unequivocal: "Israel, of course. The peace would give them a legal right for their state in our land."

The Palestinians say their fight is not just to reclaim the land on which Ariel is built. They make no distinction between Haifa, which is within the pre-1967 borders, and Ariel.

"Haifa, Akko, Tel Aviv were Palestinian cities. Why do the Jews who came from Russia and Poland live in our cities and the Palestinians live in camps? This is our land, and we want to build our state on our land," said Nasfat Khuffash.

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