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issues Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 15:25 GMT
Settlers: Claiming the 'Promised Land'
By BBC News Online's Kathryn Westcott

The issue of Jewish settlements has long plagued Israel's relations with the Palestinians.

But before the violence that began last September, deadly attacks were rare. Now, settlements are increasingly becoming the main flashpoints in the latest conflict.

Palestinians say their intifada was fuelled by frustration over the expansion of settlements in the territory they claim for a future independent state.

They wanted to live not just in the Land of Israel but as real pioneers

Israeli rabbi
Militants say settlers are legitimate targets, and have singled them out for attack with increasing regularity.

But some settlers say the attacks - many of which have resulted in death - have served to strengthen their resolve to remain in a hostile environment among the three million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Many have settled on the land for religious reasons, describing themselves as 'pioneers' claiming the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria.

Government subsidies

They portray themselves as standard-bearers of Judaism and Zionism against a secular Israel that has lost its way.

Seth Mandell, father of a teenager who was stoned to death by Palestinian militants near his settlement in the West Bank, had swapped the middle-class comforts of his home in Maryland, US, to become a 'pioneer' in the desert.

West Bank settlement
Many settlements are isolated
His community was made up of those who "wanted to live not just in the Land of Israel but as real pioneers," a local rabbi said.

Other settlers have moved simply to take advantage of the subsidies offered by the government for home purchases.

The 145 settlements dotting the West Bank and Gaza Strip today, contravene international resolutions banning the movement of settlers into land taken during war.

A number of these settlements butt up against refugee camps, where Palestinian families live cheek-by-jowl in squalor.

Violence

The settlements are protected by security guards and Israeli troops are often stationed nearby. In some cases, settlers and their children are forced to enter and leave the settlement in armoured military trucks escorted by soldiers.

A recent report by Israel's B'Tselem human rights group found that settler violence towards Palestinian residents of the territories had increased since the intifada erupted.

It says six Arabs were killed by settlers between September and March.

The organisation adds that in that period, settlers had also stoned Palestinian cars, damaged property and set fire to a mosque.

The report also highlights a sharp increase in attacks on settlers by Palestinians.

The issue of settlements has taken centre stage in the diplomatic arena, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon casting aside US and European criticism of his policies to expand existing settlements.

An inquiry by a fact-finding committee into the roots of the latest conflict, under the former US Senator George Mitchell, has recommended that Israel immediately freeze all building in the West Bank and Gaza.

And for Palestinians, the most important confidence builder in a recent Jordanian-Egyptian peace initiative was a call for "total and immediate freeze on all settlement activities, including those in East Jerusalem."

Settlers
Young settlers have never had another home
Since the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the number of Jewish settlers has increased 70% - from 125,000 to 200,000 - not counting the 200,000 Israelis living in 11 settler quarters in East Jerusalem, according to official figures.

In the same period, almost 40,000 houses have been built in the settlements, according to Israel's Dovish movement Peace Now.

'Zionist heroes'

The settlement project began after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza territories from Jordan and Egypt.

The Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) inspired religious nationalists to found the settlements.

But some Israelis question now whether the enclaves are worth defending. Many view the settlers as an extremist minority.

To many secular, dovish Israelis, settler ideology precludes the possibility of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But for many hardliners, they are Zionist heroes.


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