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Palestinians' fears grow as settlements take root Expansion: The larger the number of Jewish settlers and the greater the amount of land they control, the more difficult it becomes to create a viable state.

KIRYAT SEFER, WEST BANK — KIRYAT SEFER, West Bank -- Nasser Diab Abu Issa is helping to excavate the archaeological remains of a Jewish settlement more than 2,000 years old, and he is watching the expansion of a second, newer Jewish settlement, as bulldozers clear land for houses on this hilltop.

Abu Issa, 75, has spent the latter part of his life working on archaeological digs. But he understands the political landscape.

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"The strong man can do what he wants," he says.

So Jewish settlements continue to expand on land that Palestinians want for a state of their own. And thus, settlements remain one of the most vexing problems in the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.

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When Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright arrives here in the coming weeks, a proposal to freeze settlement construction is likely to be at the top of her agenda.

According to Israel's Bureau of Central Statistics, about 150,000 Jews live in 138 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the midst of about 2.7 million Palestinians. The settler population has increased about 40 percent since 1992.

The Palestinians have demanded a halt in settlement construction, saying expansion is Israel's attempt to solidify its hold on territory that should be subject to negotiation. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel is simply meeting the natural growth needs of its citizens. Netanyahu, an opponent of the peace agreement reached in Oslo, Norway, in 1993, won election in 1996 with the help of the settler movement.

His predecessors, Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin, allowed settlements on Jerusalem's outskirts to grow but froze most construction in more distant communities.

Since taking office, Netanyahu has eased those restrictions. And Palestinians fear that the larger the number of settlers and the greater the amount of land controlled by them, the more difficult the Palestinians will find it to create a viable state.

Grounds for fears

A recent survey by Israeli peace activists found grounds for Palestinian fears. Visits to 126 Jewish settlements, including Kiryat Sefer, found "a massive increase" in the number of housing units under construction or ready for new residents, Peace Now reported. The group estimated that within a year, those units could accommodate another 35,000 settlers, a 23 percent increase.

Aharon Domb, an official with the main settlers' organization, disputes details of the survey but not its overall finding. Domb said the Israeli government would have a hard time freezing settlement construction.

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"Maybe government construction, which is limited in its scope can be stopped, but today most of [the building] is private," said Domb, secretary general of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza.

Netanyahu has said that he opposes any freeze, and members of his Likud coalition say he must stick to that position if he wants to remain prime minister. Even a Likud moderate such as Michael Eitan makes that point.

"I'm ready for concessions -- for significant concessions -- to the Palestinian authority, including the scope of territories that will be given to its authority," said Eitan, who is Netanyahu's science minister. "But I will not be ready to support the government if it will freeze activities inside the settlements."

Many of the settlements are within a few miles of Israel's pre-1967 border and are commuter townships of gated, stucco houses. Others rise on hilltops and overlook the Palestinian cities of Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah. And others are harsher, desolate outposts, isolated communities that command sweeping views of Palestinian villages.

The first residents of the settlement called Ariel, for example, arrived in the 1970s and lived in tents. The tents have been succeeded by suburban-style homes built along a highway linking the settlement to Tel Aviv. The community has become the home of largely secular Israelis who enjoy a small-town atmosphere in hills a half hour from the Mediterranean coast.

Other settlements, such as Kiryat Sefer, offer ultra-Orthodox Jews a chance to live a strictly religious lifestyle. Residents say they are here because Kiryat Sefer was affordable, not because they wanted to lay claim to more land.

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"We're not settlers," said Naftali Pearlstein, 28, strolling toward the grocery store. "We were looking for a cheap place [to live]."

If their religious leaders told them to leave, some Kiryat Sefer residents said they would heed the call. But Pearlstein doesn't expect to be moving soon. To press his point, he mentions a visit by Ariel Sharon, the retired general who aggressively promoted settlement expansion in the early 1980s.

Sharon climbed the community water tower, Pearlstein recalled, and announced that he could see Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. "It's the center of the country," said Pearlstein.

Settlers' resolve increasing

In recent months, Jewish settlers' resolve to remain in their communities has strengthened. A survey conducted jointly by Israeli and Palestinian pollsters reported that nearly 50 percent of the Israelis living in the West Bank said they would not obey a government order to move, an increase from about 31 percent in a similar survey a year and a half ago.

"The Israeli population [in the West Bank] believes today that it has friends in government," said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Illan University outside Tel Aviv, and the poll's director. "The settler public believes Netanyahu will protect their interests in peace talks. Settlers feel less threatened and, therefore, are more defiant in relating to eventualities in the peace process."

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Many Palestinians say they want the Jewish settlers to leave. But in the interim, they want settlement expansion and land confiscation to cease.

While the positions of the sides appear intractable, compromises have been proposed.

Yossi Beilin, a former deputy in the Labor government that negotiated the 1993 peace accord, discussed a proposal with Mahmoud Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen and is a key deputy to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Possible solutions

Under the Beilin-Abu Mazen proposal, Israel would annex three settlement areas that account for less than 10 percent of the territory of the West Bank but about 70 percent of the settlers. Jewish settlers living outside those areas could choose to become residents of a Palestinian state or move to Israeli-controlled territory and receive compensation from Israel.

"This is a solution which can be realistically reached," said Beilin, who also has discussed his plan with Michael Eitan of Likud.

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Joseph Alpher, the Middle East representative of the American Jewish Committee, has suggested a similar plan. He, too, would have Israel annex the main settlement blocs -- about 11 percent of the West Bank land and 70 percent of the settlers.

The other settlers, he said, would have a transition period in which they could choose to stay in Palestinian territory or leave with compensation. Alpher also proposes a corridor -- a bridge or a tunnel -- to link the southern tip of the West Bank with Gaza.

But no plan can be seriously discussed until Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resume face-to-face talks, first about temporary measures and then about a permanent peace agreement.

Pub Date: 8/21/97


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