War Turns the Tide For Israeli Settlers

An Israeli police headquarters nears completion in an area of the West Bank east of Jerusalem that U.S. officials have long warned Israel not to develop.
An Israeli police headquarters nears completion in an area of the West Bank east of Jerusalem that U.S. officials have long warned Israel not to develop. (By Scott Wilson -- The Washington Post)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 25, 2006

AMONA, West Bank -- The movement to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which only a few months ago appeared to be a divided, waning political force, is experiencing a revival after a summer of war that caused many Israelis to question the wisdom of abandoning more territory.

Little more than a year ago, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew all Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip. After Sharon's debilitating stroke in January, his deputy, Ehud Olmert, won national elections in March on a promise to evacuate dozens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and to uproot the smaller, unauthorized communities known as outposts in a bid to define Israel's final borders.

But after a month-long war in southern Lebanon and as sporadic fighting continues in Gaza, a highly unpopular Olmert has put his West Bank withdrawal plan on hold. His government has stepped up construction in the large settlement blocs, including areas the Bush administration has warned Israel against developing, and the West Bank settlement population of a quarter-million people is growing.

"This state does not operate by a policy," said Yehuda Yifrach, 30, who still lives with his wife, Ayelet, and three children on this windblown hilltop even though in February Israeli military bulldozers demolished the shipping container that was their home. "They only go by the polls at the time."

The settlers' change of fortune stems from Israel's conflicts in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, regions the country had occupied and abandoned in the recent past. Islamic gunmen staged cross-border raids from those areas this summer, capturing three Israeli soldiers who are still being held.

Some Israelis are drawing lessons from the war that have helped vindicate the settlers, whose large financial claim on the national treasury and strident opposition to an independent state for the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have angered many here over the years. Israel occupied those regions in the 1967 Middle East war.

"The Lebanon war may have bought them time," said Dror Etkes of Peace Now, a group that opposes Israel's settlement policy. "But the demographics and the overarching view of an Israeli majority about what the state should look like has not changed. So neither has the precarious nature of the settlements."

In evacuating the Gaza settlements last year, Sharon said he was seeking to define more defensible borders and protect Israel's Jewish majority by jettisoning the strip's 1.4 million Palestinians, who might someday demand the right to vote in Israel if not given a state of their own.

Soon after, Sharon, Olmert and others quit the Likud party, leaving the settlers' most powerful sponsor in shambles. The new party they founded, Kadima, easily won the most seats in the March elections, while Likud finished tied for a distant third.

But guerrillas in Gaza have continued to pepper southern Israel with crude rockets, and the radical Islamic movement Hamas, whose stronghold is Gaza, has been elected to lead the Palestinian government. Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist even within its pre-1967 borders, nor does Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia whose seizure of two Israeli soldiers on July 12 touched off the recent war.

"The settlements are Israel's anchor in these places," said Effie Eitam, a legislator from the National Union, the settlers' political arm, who was injured in Amona in February when settlers clashed with police. "Israel is about to review its entire defense doctrine," he added, "and most Israelis understand it is time to rethink the whole paradigm of giving up land for things less certain."

A poll published Thursday in the Haaretz newspaper showed Olmert's job approval rating at 22 percent and indicated Kadima would lose 13 of its 29 parliamentary seats if elections were held today. Meanwhile, Likud, led by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, would double its strength in the legislature to 24 seats, making it the largest faction.

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