About 1,000 members of Israel's Peace Now movement took over this uninhabited West Bank Jewish settlement for several hours today in the latest example of the tension within Israel over the future of the occupied territory.
The takeover of the settlement, which is still under construction, was peaceful and was watched without interference by a handful of Israeli soldiers. But the tactic, which involved the blocking of the main access road to the settlement, was an example of what some Peace Now members have declared is the need for more radical activism to fight the government's settlement policies.
The Peace Now protest today was aimed at the increasingly successful policies of attracting settlers to the West Bank with economic incentives rather than relying on ideological motivation.
Within the last week, there were two other incidents in the West Bank involving disputes between Israelis.
On Wednesday, the Israeli military government in the West Bank declared the Hebron area a "closed military area" after some Peace Now members sought to help the local government of the Arab city to reerect and guard supports for a high- power electric line that is to provide electricity to a portion of Hebron.
The supports have been torn down twice recently by settlers from Qiryat Arba, a nearby Jewish settlement established by the militantly nationalistic Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement. The local council of Qiryat Arba has declared that the power-line supports are being erected on land it controls.
The day after the military government issued the order, there was a near violent confrontation between two groups of Jewish settlers in the Hebron area. About 30 followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane broke into the home of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a Gush Emunim leader, to demand that a settlement they are attempting to establish near Hebron receive support from the Qiryat Arba council.
Kahane's small group of followers, most of them American Jews, are among the most extreme of the Jewish settlers in the West Bank. They believe that the territory's 800,000 Arab inhabitants should be offered "inducements" to leave and, if they refuse, should be forcibly evicted from the West Bank.
Efrat, still under construction high on a hill overlooking the highway between Bethlehem and Hebron, is scheduled to be occupied by its first residents in March. According to Janet Aviad, a Hebrew University professor of education, it was chosen as the site of the demonstration because it is planned as a typically "middle-class" settlement.
Many of the people moving to Efrat and settlements like it "don't think of the political implications," she said. "It's a good investment for them, but a disastrous investment for the country."
Galia Golan, another Peace Now leader, said, "We want to impress on the people who move to the West Bank for economic and not political reasons what they are doing. Here, you are investing in the destruction of peace."
Peace Now has always been a minority group in Israel, although the organizers were pleased by the turnout at today's demonstration on a cold, windy, overcast day. The state-run Voice of Israel radio tonight quoted the head of Efrat's local council as saying the protesters had chosen as their target one of the West Bank settlements on which there is a national consensus of support within Israel.
Aviad said the takeover even of an uninhabited settlement was a "more radical" tactic than usual for the generally genteel Peace Now movement, but she said the pace of the government's settlement drive in the West Bank called for more dramatic countermeasures.
"We're not going to be violent," she said. "When the soldiers come and ask us to leave, we'll leave. We're not going to fight soldiers--yet. There is still a chance. You get desperate when you think there is no chance."
To assure that the takeover of Efrat came off, the protesters resorted to a diversionary tactic, sending a small group to another settlement far north of here to stage a second demonstration. Many of them also approached Efrat along narrow, winding back roads to avoid Army roadblocks of the main highway. It turned out that the roadblocks did not exist.
Once at the settlement, the protesters blocked the main access road from the highway with what was described as an "abstract sculpture" consisting of six short steel beams encased in concrete and welded together. They also placed signs demanding a halt to Jewish settlement in the West Bank on the empty buildings of the town.