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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
Israel's religious settlers

By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online in Jerusalem

In the first of a series of articles examining attitudes among Israelis towards the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, BBC News Online's Raffi Berg explores the views of ideological settlers.

By the side of a path on a hillside north of Jerusalem hangs a sign offering a blunt riposte to those who harbour plans to tamper with the fate of the land.

"Only the Bible is the roadmap of the Jewish people," it says in a message directed far beyond the itinerants who pass by.

It is here, in what the settlers call the Judean hills, that the roadmap, the US-backed blueprint for peace, has few takers and will face its sternest test.

Mother and daughter at Mitzpeh Danny
Some settlers live in temporary structures which are being replaced by permanent homes
According to a recent survey of settlers by the Jerusalem-based Harry S Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, nearly 40% of Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip live there out of a belief in a divinely ordained mission to inhabit the land.

But it is land the Palestinians seek for a future state and they oppose the presence of settlements as an obstacle to achieving this end.

The religious settlers dispute this, claiming a historical right to live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the roadmap, which envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, has only fuelled their determination to stay.

"We've had roadmaps in the past, they've come and gone. This one is another incarnation of a politician's whim. I think this one will come and go," said Ruvane Bernstein, a South African immigrant to the settlement of Shilo.

The politician to whom he refers is, ironically, the same man who was the driving force behind the establishment and expansion of many of the settlements in the 1980s and 1990s - Ariel Sharon.

Sharon shock

Now many settlers view their former champion with deep distrust.

WEST BANK SETTLEMENTS
400,000 Jews live in 150 settlements in West Bank
7,000 Jews live in 16 settlements in the Gaza Strip
80% of settlers in West Bank live close to Israel's border
Most settlements have fewer than 1,000 citizens

In April 2003, Mr Sharon dropped a bombshell when, in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, he alluded to Shilo as possibly being one of the "painful [territorial] concessions" he would be prepared to make for peace with the Palestinians.

The disclosure sent shockwaves through the settlement community.

If Shilo - the ancient capital of Israel and for centuries the Biblical home of the holy Ark of the Covenant - was not safe in the hands of one of its staunchest patrons, nowhere was.

Mr Sharon said he had been misunderstood, but the damage was done.

"I don't trust Sharon one little bit," Mr Bernstein told BBC News Online. "He has shown himself to switch horses mid-race within the space of a week."

Shilo, home to about 200 modern Orthodox Jewish families, is typical of settlements which were founded out of an ideological motivation by Jews to return to their ancestral homeland in the West Bank after it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Ruvane Bernstein
Religious settlers believe in a historical right to inhabit the West Bank
However, these settlements are often remote and while the majority of settlers could be brought within the boundaries of the Jewish state with minor adjustments to the pre-1967 border, the future of the outlying settlements in a final status peace deal remains uncertain.

The roadmap calls for a Palestinian state with "maximum territorial contiguity", but despite the acute threat to their survival here, religious settlers are sustained by an unfaltering belief that a power higher than George W Bush or Ariel Sharon is on their side.

"As religious Jews we have a different attitude to the world," said Mr Bernstein. "We don't tend to regard people's roadmaps as very permanent.

"If [the removal of Shilo] has to happen then maybe it has to happen, but that won't be Sharon's intent, that will be God's."

Battle for the hilltops

The determination of religious settlers to assert their claim to the land can be seen by the proliferation of hilltop outposts which have sprung up in recent years.

JEWISH SETTLEMENTS
Widely regarded by international community as illegal under international law according to Fourth Geneva Convention (article 49), which prohibits an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory
Israel argues international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to West Bank and Gaza because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place

While the fate of Shilo and similar settlements will be determined at some point in the not too distant future, the battle over encampments built without government approval has already begun.

Some have been removed, only to be rebuilt and to multiply within days, while building work has intensified at other sites to turn the odd water tower or cluster of flimsy caravans into permanent structures in a race to scuttle the roadmap before it is too late.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the outpost of Migron, perched on a hilltop within sight of the Palestinian town of Ramallah.

Eighteen months ago, a handful of families moved to what was a barren, windswept summit, and set up camp among the rocks, living in nothing more than a single row of caravans.

Today, Migron is home to 36 families who enjoy the facilities of a small village, including a playground, creche, synagogue, library and a health centre.

Construction work at Givat Haroeh outpost
Building work at some outposts has been accelerated
Beyond the perimeter fence, piles of white rubble have been dug to prepare the ground for solid homes, a sign of the residents' confidence that they are here to stay.

"People don't want to move," said Mindy, a resident from New York. "We have planted gardens, people have built wooden porches, we have a playground for our children. Why should we move?"

According to the Israeli group Peace Now, which campaigns against settlements, Migron is one of 48 outposts which have been built since March 2001 and must be dismantled under the terms of the roadmap.

Legal status

Peace Now says Migron, and others like it, are trying to gain legal status in Israeli law, which the settlers hope might be an obstacle to their removal.

Rami Dayan
Mr Dayan says he is not worried about the future
One outpost which began life as a rogue encampment and gained official recognition is Mitzpeh Danny, a hilltop satellite of the settlement of Maaleh Michmash, about 12 km (seven miles) north-east of Jerusalem.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak granted Mitzpeh Danny and other unauthorised outposts legal recognition in 1999 under an agreement with settlers' leaders, although he reserved the right to dismantle them in the future under a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Four years on, the removal of Mitzpeh Danny is back on the cards.

Despite the threat hanging over his community, resident Rami Dayan is planning for the future.

"This is only the temporary site," he said, gesturing at the caravans and vegetable patch. "We want to build a permanent settlement east of here."

I asked him if he was worried that he and the 17 other families who live here might be forced to move out one day soon because of the peace plan.

"We don't feel threatened by the roadmap," he said. "I believe this land is for us and I start from the Bible.

"We don't worry about what President Bush or Tony Blair says, for sure. We just have to continue living here and strengthening the place. That's the reality. What else can we do?"


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