As Pullout Nears, Israeli Settlers Moving In to Build a Community

Jewish settlers set up tents as they moved into Sanur, more than doubling the settlement's population in a protest against Israeli evacuation plans.
Jewish settlers set up tents as they moved into Sanur, more than doubling the settlement's population in a protest against Israeli evacuation plans. "We have learned to fight for . . . every point of the Jewish state," says one settler. (By Oded Balilty -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 26, 2005

SANUR, West Bank -- This Israeli settlement of artists and immigrants in the bleached hills of the northern West Bank is a place without a future. The Israeli army is due to arrive in just over two months to remove the few dozen families who live in trailers, tents and a handful of stucco homes set on a hillside bristling with pine and cypress trees.

Ruth Sariel is not worried. She arrived last week with her husband and two of her 10 children, moving into a tent beneath cell phone towers and a military guard post. Sariel is here to defend Sanur from the Israeli government, which over the years encouraged Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

In the past three weeks, the arrival of 20 families like the Sariels has more than doubled the population of Sanur. Workers are hastily building the community's first synagogue, scheduled to open next month. Rooms in the stone building that serves as a community center are being turned into kitchens to feed the new arrivals, many of them young children. There are plans for a summer camp.

"We have learned to fight for each and every point of the Jewish state," said Sariel, 41, her young boys playing at her feet. "This is the heart of the land of Israel."

The feverish activity here is a worrisome challenge to Israeli military officials in the weeks leading up to the scheduled evacuation of 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and four here in the northern West Bank, now a gathering point for settlers who oppose Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan. The Gaza evacuation will involve an estimated 8,500 settlers, by far the largest element of the month-long operation. But a deeply felt religious identification with this region, as well as its challenging terrain, could turn the operation here into a more troubling one for Israeli soldiers and the rest of the country, now split over the merit of what is commonly known as disengagement.

Many Israelis refer to the northern West Bank region by its biblical name of Samaria, part of the ancient land of Israel, and its significance has drawn a small vanguard of the settlers movement that for generations has resisted periodic government attempts to roll back settlements in the occupied territories. As a teenager, for instance, Sariel traveled to the Israeli settlement of Yamit in the northern Sinai in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Israeli withdrawal from the peninsula following the Camp David accords in 1978. Israel has also evacuated some small hilltop communities known as outposts.

Unlike in the Gaza Strip, which is encircled by a fortified fence, Israelis move unhindered here along hillside paths and through valleys striped with olive groves. Sanur's leaders predict that thousands of activists opposed to the pullout will follow the Sariels' lead and make their way into the region before the Aug. 15 start of the Gaza operation, which Israeli military officials say will be immediately followed by the evacuation here.

"The hard part is that there are no clear limits, so it is hard to distinguish those arriving to strengthen the resistance" to disengagement, Brig. Gen. Guy Tzur, deputy commander of the Israeli army's southern command and an architect of the military strategy for disengagement, said in a recent interview.

"We have to remember there is a day after, and the day after is the most important part of this mission," he continued. "They are our brothers. We must respect them even in difficult times, and there will be difficult times in the three weeks of evacuation."

According to Israel's Interior Ministry, 38 people lived in Sanur as of June 2004. But Sanur leaders say the recent arrivals have swelled the population to at least 250 people, more than a quarter of them children. None of the other West Bank settlements scheduled for evacuation -- with a population of fewer than 700 people -- has grown as much.

Anti-settlement activists say Sharon, who has presented the disengagement plan as a way to better secure the Israeli state, is allowing Sanur to grow now in the hope that a difficult evacuation will reduce future demands that Israelis leave any of the other 136 settlements on the West Bank.

Israeli soldiers are posted at Sanur's front gate and in watchtowers around the perimeter. But the new families and 25 religious school students from Kiryat Arba, a settlement in the southern West Bank who arrived a few months ago, have been allowed to move in without trouble. Building materials for use in the synagogue's construction and stacks of tents pass through the gates.

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