KIRYAT SEFER, West Bank -- Atallah Amireh joined dozens of Palestinian villagers in a protest march over the planned expansion of this Jewish settlement on the West Bank.
When the villagers refused to turn back, Israeli soldiers guarding the construction site tried to stop the protesters with tear gas. Stones flew. The soldiers responded with a volley of rubber bullets, then gunfire.
Amireh, a father of seven children, was killed on the hilltop that November day. His death is a reminder of the potentially tragic consequences in the abiding dispute over the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Since the 1967 war, when Israel defeated the Arabs and gained control of the former Jordanian territory in the West Bank, the government has developed parcels of land into settlement towns, some of the first being built in East Jerusalem.
Israel confiscated large tracts in the name of security and purchased other parcels from their Arab owners. Religious and nationalist Jews -- who believe that Israel includes Judea and Samaria, the biblical names of the West Bank -- have long dominated the settlement drive.
Palestinians, who lived there for decades, had few avenues of redress.
The 1993 land-for-peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians froze development in settlement towns that one day might be ruled by the new Palestinian authority. Tension over the occupied territories flared anew after the May election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A hard-liner from the Likud coalition, Netanyahu promised to renew building in the West Bank settlements, a paramount drive of Likud.
In Kiryat Sefer, Netanyahu is making good on his election promise, as his government also appeared to be doing in its preliminary decision yesterday to build Jewish housing in an Arab community on the fringes of the Old City of Jerusalem.
In addition to yesterday's decision, the Netanyahu government has approved construction of 1,800 units of new housing and:
Approved planning for 1,159 units at Immanuel, a settlement of ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a 1,200-unit development at the Nahliel settlement, both in the West Bank.
Allowed the purchase of thousands of completed but unoccupied settlement housing units in the territories, the sales of which had been blocked by the previous Labor Party government.
Supported industrial development in the settlement areas.
Backed additional development in the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu's attempts to appease his political constituency have upset the United States, an Israeli ally and a sponsor of the peace process. Arab nations, notably Egypt, have accused Netanyahu of violating the peace accords.
The 1993 peace agreement negotiated by the previous government states that the future of the West Bank settlements is to be decided in final-status talks, which must conclude by 1999. About 150,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza amid about 2 million Palestinians.
While the peace accords don't specifically prohibit settlement expansion, they do state that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations."
Settlement expansion would do just that, says Ahmed Qurei, the president of the Palestinian Legislative Council who helped draft the peace agreements.
"It will make the final-status negotiation impossible," said Qurei, also known as Abu Alla'a. "If they will continue in this way, continue building settlements, there will be no peace."
Recently, Netanyahu denied accusations that he had embarked on "unbridled" expansion of settlements. "Well, I can only say I wish that were true," he said, citing financial and budgetary constraints that preclude him from doing more faster.
Unlike the last Likud government that resisted the peace process and feverishly built settlements, Netanyahu must balance his political needs with his commitment to the world to carry out the peace accords arranged by the last Labor #i government. To that end, the less said the better.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, in whom Netanyahu invested approval power over settlement projects, refuses to disclose his decisions of the past six months. That leaves only the leaders of the settler movement and peace activists opposed to settlement expansion to size up the changing landscape in the occupied territories. Invariably, figures on settlements, project plans and estimated number of housing units differ.
Expansion as natural growth
"The policy is not to establish new settlements," said a defense ministry official. "Expansion [is] where there is a natural growth. In practice, nothing has been built."
But Shmuel Lanza, the head of the Immanuel Local Council, said Mordechai has approved all the permits necessary to begin construction at the Immanuel settlement. Of the 1,159 housing units planned, 500 will be built in 1997 and the remainder in 1998, he said. Immanuel, a settlement of 4,500, stands amid a desolate, hilly landscape about 10 miles southwest of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
Immanuel suffered under the previous government; the price of apartments dropped, Mayor Lanza said. "People stopped believing in the place. Labor's policy froze everything. Today, they hear our cry," he said.
When an Israeli newspaper recently reported on a new development on the slopes of the Golan Heights that had been reviewed by Netanyahu, the government characterized the project as "enlargements" of existing communities. But the proposed development has no "physical contiguity with an existing settlement," according to the report in Yediot Aharonot.
This apparent doublespeak is the outcome of a tug-of-war between the prime minister and some of his most ardent political supporters, said Shmuel Sandler, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
"Netanyahu would prefer things to be quiet if he wanted to build," said Sandler, who has written on the settlement community. "The settlers have their own agenda. They want to show they have forced the government into investing in the settlements."
Netanyahu's interest in the settlements is political, he said. "If he really wanted to go for settlements, he would have given a free hand to 'Arik' Sharon," Sandler said, referring to hard-liner Ariel Sharon, who directed the most aggressive settlement expansions more than a decade ago. "I would say that's not where his main goal is. I would say his main goal is the year 2000. To be re-elected."
Leaders of the Yesha Council, the organization of West Bank and Gaza settlements, is encouraged by the Netanyahu government's actions, but still has some suspicions.
"We have his ear. We can talk to him whenever we want. There is a feeling somewhat of trust from the prime minister -- maybe not as prime minister -- but personally," said Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for the settlers council. "The last government here made a lot of people feel like second-class citizens."
But the settlers complain about bureaucratic hassles. They ask dTC why more projects haven't been approved. The council's leaders have been told to be patient while the government completes the thorny redeployment of Israeli troops from the city of Hebron, where 400 Jewish settlers live among 100,000 Palestinians.
"The big question comes," said Herbst, "and we ask ourselves this a lot -- [at] what point do you give up on him?"
Pub Date: 12/11/96