Lunes 1 de Julio de 2002, Ip nš 18

They come here to live... and, if God wills it, to die
Por Peter Beaumont

The bodies were laid out in a neat row, each wrapped in a shroud of black plastic, next to the twisted wreckage of the bus. The burial society workers and police had stuck a number to each body. But body is the wrong word. Some bags had little enough to put in them, after the bombing.

They were not anonymous for long. By morning the bodies had been identified as real people, who once enjoyed real lives: the victims of Bus 32a. There was Liat Yagen, aged 24. Shiri Nagari, who was to have celebrated her twenty-second birthday in 10 days' time. Shani Avitzedek, 15, who was to have flown to Berlin this week as part of a youth delegation, and Leah Baruch, 59, who had emigrated from Iran.

All lived in Gilo, a neighbourhood whose gates begin a few hundred yards from where they died when Mohammed al-Roul, a Palestinian student from Nablus University, blew up his bomb inside their bus, killing 19 people and himself.

Except the Palestinians use a different word to describe what Gilo is: an area of tall apartment blocks that straddles a long ridge across the valley from the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. For while to Israelis it is the 'Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo', for Palestinians it is the 'settlement at Gilo'.

The object of this attack was not selected simply as a convenient target. It was aimed at the residents of Gilo, for where they live and who they are.

The people of Gilo, by and large, would not think of themselves as 'settlers'. They would define themselves as ordinary residents of a well-developed suburb, albeit one whose land was seized by the Israeli state, which is cheap and convenient for Jerusalem's city centre. Real settlers, they will tell you, live out on the West Bank, deep in the Occupied Territories, driven by religion and their singular and passionate interpretation of history to reclaim the promised 'Land of Israel'.

Real settlers, admit settlers themselves, have their own assertive culture. They have a way of dressing. The settler boys, in their baggy clothes and deep Kurdish-style skullcaps, listen to their own kind of music and have their own way of talking, using army slang. When Jerusalem kids say kvish for road, the settler kids say tzir - the military word for 'access'.

But for the bombers and the gunmen of the Palestinian militant groups it is all the same. Whether it is Gilo in the suburbs or the settlement at Elon Moreh on a hill above Nablus, or a new 'outpost of mobile homes' deep in the hills of the West Bank, they are all targets, say the militants, 'occupiers' living on stolen land.

And these days the settlers - those driven by economic reasons (like those in Gilo) or those driven by ideology - are in the forefront of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as some of the militant Palestinian factions appear to be moving away from a policy of indiscriminate suicide-bomb attacks towards a more pointed strategy that has placed settlers in the front line.

On Thursday evening it was the turn of the Shabo family, residents of the settlement at Itamar, in the thorn-covered hills above the West Bank city of Nablus. The Palestinian gunmen who cut through the settlement's fence burst into the Shabos' home, killing Rachel, 40, and three of her sons, Neria, 16, Zvi, 12, and Avishai, five. Eight people in the house were also wounded, including the Shabos' 11-year-old son, who remains in a serious condition.

The settlers who came on Friday to bury Rachel Shabo and her sons, and neighbour Yossi Tuito, shot down while running to their aid, fit the description of 'real settlers'.

I saw a woman pass with two children in a stroller, an M16 assault rifle slung across her shoulder. But mainly it is the men who carry the guns: and every other man was draped with an M16, or had a machine pistol in a holster or hanging from a lanyard. For all the civilian clothes, the mourners at Itamar looked like a small army.

By chance last Tuesday, even as Israel's emergency services were counting the cost of the carnage from Bus 32a, the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, was meeting to address security for the settlements. What they were told was that the Israeli defence forces have become tied down by the demands of defending the settlements.

These days almost three times as many soldiers and reservists are required to protect them - many of them 'illegal outposts' [that is, not authorised by Israel] - as were needed in the days before the present intifada. By some estimates it may require more than 1.1 billion shekels extra ($250 million) this year to keep them secure.

The settlers believe this is a price worth paying. If Israel begins disman tling the settlements under threat of terrorism, they fear the next target will be the cities of Israel proper. If the settlements are given up, say the hardliners, then the next thing that will go will be Israel itself. The real settlers also believe, in any case, that far from expropriating land, the West Bank of the Jordan river is part of the historical land promised by God to the Jews.

I drove up to the settlement at Elon Moreh, the neighbouring settlement to Itamar, just outside the West Bank city of Nablus, to meet Sara Gelbard, a mother of eight and resident at Elon Moreh for 11 years, whom I first interviewed at the funeral of a rabbi from her community, killed by Palestinians in the first few days of the intifada.

The settlement sits on the highest hill above Nablus. The bypass that takes you to it passes Arab villages and well-tended plots of land where, last week, the Palestinian families were cutting hay. You curl up switchbacks, past a couple of checkpoints, and then you reach the first houses: tidy, red-roofed villas built in rows that contour the hills.

There is no fence, unlike some settlements. As Gelbard explained, the reputation of the settlement means that Palestinians know that if they come here 'things will be not be great for them'.

Elon Moreh is home to 1,500 residents. There is no cinema. But there are religious schools, including a Russian high school. Strangers in communities like Elon Moreh are greeted with suspicion. As I asked directions to Gelbard's house; a heavy-set man in late middle age, wearing shorts and a blue polo shirt, came over. Seeing the press signs on my car, he said angrily: 'Go back down to Nablus, where you will be happier among the Palestinians.'

I found Sara Gelbard at her house. A teacher at a religious school, Gelbard, 38, grew up in London before emigrating to Israel and marrying a Uruguayan rabbi. In the parlour of her home, lined with religious books, her son sat reading prayers. She admitted settlers in her community were seen as 'hardliners'.

If any settlement is on the front line, both literally and in its ideology, then it is Elon Moreh. Established in 1977 as the first community of the Gush Emunim movement, Israel's authorities first tried to block its establishment. Faced with the persistence of the settlers, it eventually backed down. And Elon Moreh has acted as a springboard for new settlements, as those who have passed through its gates have settled in new locations.

Life in settlements like Elon Moreh is simple. Despite financial grants and assistance, money is short: settler cars out in the Territories, like settler clothes, are well worn and often battered. Women teach, or work as social workers. But mainly they work in the home and raise the enormous families that they hope will populate the Territories: new generations raised in the settler way of thinking.

The residents here are, by and large, 'religious', as Israelis would say. Few residents watch television. There is no cinema or place for the youngsters to hang out. Entertainment is arranged around the family and neighbours. Sara's house, like several that I visit, is plain. There is little decoration. What books are there are religious texts.

Gelbard told me some news. In April a Palestinian gunman crept into Elon Moreh. He aimed an automatic rifle through a window and killed four members of the Gavish family in their house. The other news was that Elon Moreh is about to open its own swimming pool. The settlements' fondness for building pools is controversial in a parched land where access to water is one of the most dangerous and contentious areas of friction between Jews and Palestinians.

I asked Gelbard about President George Bush's plans to declare his support for a 'provisional Palestinian state'. Sitting in the front room of her modest house, she said: 'I hope it won't ever come about. The whole idea of a Palestinian state is a fabrication: Jordan is the Palestinian state.'

The way that Sara, and other settlers see it, is that the British promised the Jews all of the 'land of Israel' east of the Jordan river (that is, including the West Bank) in the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Britain reneged and the League of Nations came up with a different map, but for those like Gelbard, and the Yesha Council for the Communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the British promise - like that of God - still stands.

'We always wanted to come and live on a settlement,' says Sara, 'in the historical territories restored to us by the Six-Day War. We are here because this is our land. I can't ever see us leaving. So many miracles have brought us here.' But what is good about the life here? 'The children have a lot of freedom on the settlement. They can spend their time outside. It gives them a lot of independence.'

Sara admits her own parents, who live in England but own a flat in the Israeli town of Netanya, are apprehensive about her life on the settlement. 'They do come to Israel a lot to visit, but have have been telling me for years we should move back to Jerusalem or Netanya.'

The next morning I travelled down Route 60 - the main highway that connects the Palestinian cities of the West Bank - to visit the settlement at Kiryat Arba, and the most ambitious attempt at a settlement of all, in the middle of the Palestinians in the heart of Hebron's old city. I took Bus 160 - the armoured settler bus that leaves from Jerusalem's central bus station.

As the bus went south of Bethlehem past the ever-expanding settlements at Newe Daniel, past the sprawling blocks of Gush Etzion, whose new 'outposts' of mobile homes in rows are creeping further down the hillside, towards Kiryat Arba, I realised that there were no Palestinian cars on this road. All the side roads that lead to Palestinian villages and homes were blocked. The road was controlled entirely by the army.

The Palestinians are all on foot.

I asked David Wilder, the spokesman for the settlement inside Hebron, about this. I met David in his office. He is a grizzled US emigrant now in his mid-fifties. He carries a pistol tucked inside a holster on his hip. He said Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's massive incursion into the West Bank in April, was 'a good job'. Cars with Palestinian plates are now forbidden on the road. Route 60, the most economically important road for Palestinians, is now sealed for the protection of the settlers.

David showed me around. The settlers here are surrounded by Palestinian houses on all sides. They live in neighbourhoods separated by Palestinian homes. The army is on every corner. Perhaps inevitably tragedies do happen. He showed me the plaque on the wall next to the children's playground where Shalhevet Pass, an infant in a stroller, was shot by a sniper through the head and killed. He showed me the memorial wall in the synagogue commemorating all those Jews who have been killed in the area.

Men like David - settlers generally - are not big on small talk. If they will talk to the foreign media at all it is about God, history and their entitlement to the land. But I ask him about his life - as he would put it - under siege. 'We live our life as normally as possible. You go to school. You go to work. You travel the roads. You make minor adjustments to your life. I have sandbags on my windows after my house got hit by bullets.'

David produced a book he keeps on his desk drilled by a bullet. 'But no one left last year.'

It was not supposed to be like this. Under the Oslo peace accords, signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 at Camp David, the Israeli government committed itself to a freeze on settlement building, promising it would establish no new settlements and halt the expansion of the existing settlements.

But if Palestinians - and the international brokers of the accords - hoped that this would mark the beginning of the end of Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories they were mistaken. Not only did Oslo not lead to the evacuation of a single settlement; instead, as recent published research by the B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, has demonstrated, settlement building has accelerated.

In 1993 the population of the settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) totalled 247,000. By the end of 2001 this had risen to 380,000 - an increase of approximately 54 per cent in seven years. And the biggest increase has taken place on the West Bank, where settler numbers between 1993 and 2000 increased from 100,500 to 191,600, a growth rate of 90 per cent.

The sharpest increase was in 2000, under the government headed by Ehud Barak, when the construction of almost 4,800 new housing units was begun. And most of it had been conducted under the banner of 'natural growth' of the population, a device, independent experts now claim, which is a ruse being used simply to grab more land. For while Israel's population has been expanding at a rate of around 2 per cent a year, the numbers of settlers have been rising by a staggering 12 per cent a year.

That expansion has taken place under different pretexts. Israel, as the B'Tselem report details, has established new settlements under the guise of so-called 'new neighbourhoods' - expansions to existing areas of settlements, often not even linked by contiguous areas of land. Another method, detailed by B'Tselem, used to expand settlements has been seizure of a new location by a group of settlers, who then erect caravans on the site without approval from the relevant authorities.

'The government,' adds the report, 'generally refrains from evicting the settlers or demolishing the buildings they erected without permits.' The settlers' supporters will tell you that Israel may have broken its commitments under Oslo, but so too, they say, have the Palestinians over both incitement and violence. If the Palestinians are cheating, they suggest, then the deal is off.

'Since Oslo we have seen two processes going in parallel,' says Ezekiel Lein, the author of the B'Tselem report. 'We have had one process that has been, until the outbreak of the present intifada, about negotiation and declarations of principle. On the other hand we have had this process of very fast growth of the population of the settlements and land occupation. It has been a silent process that has been quietly putting obstacles on the road to peace.

'Using these methods, Israel has seized control of 50 per cent of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem,' says Lein. 'And what is lacking is any political will to confront the settlers.'

It is Kiryat Arba that links settlements like Gilo with those like Hebron and Elon Moreh. Seven thousand people live here. Its grounds are landscaped. It has tennis courts and basketball hoops, it has schools, a supermarket, a covered pool. And all laid out behind a fence that separates it from the dirt-poor Palestinian village beyond its guarded walls.

Once Kiryat Arba was like Elon Moreh. Now it is established as a large, well-developed community, other kinds of Jews are coming here to live, mainly Russian immigrants, many of whom are secular in orientation. In that sense it is moving in the direction of Gilo.

This time I meet Naftali Greenwood and his wife, Marsha. Since the last time we met, a year before, Naftali has bought his own large apartment for $50,000. In Gilo it would cost $180,000, in Jerusalem itself much more. But Naftali and Marsha came to Kiryat Arab 11 years ago not as 'economic settlers' but because they believed in the vision of Kiryat Arba and the settlement movement. It is, as Naftali explained, the Mother Settlement.

Naftali is aware of how settlers have come to be regarded as prime targets by the Palestinian militant factions. 'They say that we are here illegally, and that we are therefore soldiers and legitimate targets. They rationalise that mainstream Israel does not care if settlers are blown up.

'Before the intifada the Palestinians used a word - sumud - to describe their approach: steadfastness. In Hebrew it is tzamud, but the word we use is amida . It also means steadfastness. I really believe that if the Palestinians saw a single settlement given up now and dismantled, they would fight for another 25 years. So we have to be steadfast.'

But what if a real peace was contingent on whether the settlements would stay or go? Naftali thought for a moment. 'Running away doesn't help. But if I thought we were a real obstruction to a real and lasting peace, if it was real, then of course we would go.'


  23/06/2002. The Observer.