With only 13 days left before the deadline to evacuate their illegal outpost near here, the fiercely determined Israeli settlers of Elon Moreh are entrenching themselves deeper into the rocky hillsides, prepared to force their government to choose between forcibly evicting them and issuing a declaration tantamount to annexing the West Bank.
As a raw winter wind swept across the Samarian hills yesterday and Arab landowners in the nearby village of Rujeib waited expectantly for the settlers to begin moving off their property, a bulldozer inched its way up the dirt road leading to the cluster of trailer homes that make up Elon Moreh.
But instead of razing the settlement, as ordered by the highest court in Israel, the workmen were imporving the roadway, eroded by recent rains.
The 15-Israeli families that make up the nucleus of Elon Moreh continue to work on their modest little houses, planting flowerbeds scratched out of the rocky soil and touching up their quarters as if they had a lifetime lease on the land.
There are signs of permanency everywhere, despite the countdown to the end of Elon Moreh: an intricate network of water and sewage pipes carefully designed to accommodate more houses, a well-stocked convenience store, a tiny daycare center and primary school, and television antennas sprouting from rooftops.
Mekhaila Shuvt, young activist in the militant Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) settlement movement, sat in her living room and explained what the signs of permanency are all about.
"We have no intention of becoming wandering Jews inside greater Israel," Shuvt said firmly, with a touch of hardness in her voice that comes from being moved out of illegal settlements eight times in the last six years.
Shuvt is not unusual among Gush Emunim settlers, some of the most fervent of whom picked Elon Moreh for an all-out stand in the face of growing opposition to Jewish settlement on Arab land. She is unashamedly idealistic when it comes to defining Jewish rights to the occupied West Bank, and she makes no attempt to mince her words.
She picked as her wedding site five years ago the Arab village of Sabastiya, five miles northwest of here, because it is the place where Omri, the sixth king of Israel, established a new Israelite capital in 876 B.C. She joined the first attempt at Jewish settlement in the Samarian hills in 1974 at nearby Kedum, and stuck out the resistance until the illegal outpost finally was legitimized as the Kedumim settlement.
Now she is willing to make a stand again on these desolate, forbidding hills, surrounded by nothing but rock and mud, with little to do.
"Why? Because this is the heart of Israel. Somewhere around here is the first place Abraham settled. One could say this is where we started our nation," Shuvt said.
Shuvt has made the same speech many times to journalists, government officials and, more recently, the throngs of tourists who have been visiting Elon Moreh in bright orange tour buses. She continues, vocally emphasing key points.
"Since Nablus is the centerplace for the P L O (Palestine Liberation Organization) and their activities, we felt that if there were no Jews near Nablus -- shopping and showing a presence -- we could never have any relationship with the Arabs. We would be strangers in our own land," she said.
Do she and her fellow settlers now have such a relationship? Does she shop in Nablus?
Shuvt appeared uncomfortable with the question conceding that she only occasionally goes into the West Bank's largest -- and most militant -- Arab town and that "the hatred of so many years isn't erased in six months."
"But we believe this is as much a part of Israel as Tel Aviv or Haifa," Shuvt said. "Through the years, we'll go to Nablus more and meet the people. I don't know if they would love us, but they would realize we are part of the scene."
The Elon Moreh settlers have been here since June 7, when in a lightning swift helicopter operation aided by the Israeli Army, they erected the first tents and generators and water tanks before Arab landowners could petition the Israeli high court.
The court eventually ruled that the government had illegally expropriated Arab land for Elon Moreh. It gave the settlers one month to leave, a deadline that Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his cabinet extended by six weeks to Dec. 31.
The government began preparing a new site at nearby Jebel Kabir, and for a brief period earlier this month it appeared that the settlers would move and the crisis be averted.
But Gush Emunim leaders later claimed that their agreement to evacuate Elon Moreh was conditioned on a formal declaration by Begin of a change in the legal status of the West Bank, specifically an assertion that Israel does not consider the West Bank an occupied territory. If this were the case, Hague Convention prohibitions against seizing occupied private land for civilian settlements would not be applicable.
Gush Emunim and many other nationalistic Israeli Jews contend that the West Bank belongs to Israel by right, as part of the biblical land of Israel, and not as a result of being captured militarily.
The Israeli government has always contended that the West Bank was never legally a part of Jordan, which seized it in 1948, and therefore is not necessarily occupied land. But Israel observed the Hague and Geneva conventions in its administration of the territory, recognizing that to do otherwise would be tantamount to annexation, a move that even Israel's closest allies would strongly oppose.
"If we have a declaration that this is not conquered land, we will move." Shuvt said, This echoed the ultimatum issued by Elon Moreh leader Benni Katgover, who said, "We've made it clear to the prime minister that there is very close linkage between our decision to move and our demand to change the legal status of Judea and Samaria" -- the biblical names of the West Bank.
Reminded that the Camp David peace treaty explicity prohibits Israel from changing the West Bank's legal status without the consent of Egypt and the United States, Shuvt replied:
"It isn't a secret that we want to cancel the autonomy talks. We think that this whole peace agreement will be a disaster. At best, we would like to annex Judea and Samaria, but if we can't do that, at least the government can say this is not occupied territory."
With such wide differences separating Gush Emunim and the government, which is committed to continuing the Camp David peace process, there appears little chance of avoiding a confrontation with Elon Moreh.
The government could postpone the crisis by extending the Dec. 31 deadline, but there seems little chance of that.
Foreign Ministry officials also noted today that Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir has told Begin that only the court can change the status of the West Bank, not the ministry or the Cabinet.
Begin has hinted several times that his patience is running out, and Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich, a conservative, says that when Elon Moreh's deadline expires, "they should be moved and that's that. Fifteen families cannot play around with a country."
A source close to Begin said the prime minister's concern over a possibly violent clash between the Army and Gush Emunim militants at Elon Moreh has steadily grown, and that he is desperately seeking ways to a peaceful solution.
"If we have to remove them by force and there is bloodshed, I believe the government would fall," the source said.