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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
The future of the Jewish settlements
Israeli settlers' march
Israelis protest their right to the settlements
By John Simpson in Jerusalem

The day after the six-day war of 1967, the heavily outnumbered and outgunned Israeli army captured the Old City of Jerusalem and virtually everything to the west of the River Jordan.


Now we must give all this land back at once. Except Jerusalem, perhaps. That we will have to discuss

David Ben Gurion
The former prime minister, David Ben Gurion, now an old man, climbed awkwardly into a helicopter and was flown over the captured land - Judaea and Samaria, as the Bible calls it.

In Old Testament times, Jews had fought over it and occupied it, and had been driven out of it 2,000 years before. Now it was theirs again.

Ben Gurion, looking like an Old Testament prophet himself, was profoundly moved. Then he turned to the man beside him. "Now we must give all this land back at once," he said. "Except Jerusalem, perhaps. That we will have to discuss."

No one listened. Ben Gurion represented an Israeli tradition whose day was already passing - the old Israel, socialist and neutral.

The new Israel

Post 1967, Israel would be a regional super-power, determined - with American help - to stay that way. The Palestinians would know who was boss.

From time to time there were suggestions that the captured land could be traded for a peace agreement, but it never quite came to anything.

David Ben Gurion
David Ben Gurion wanted to give the land back
A few months ago, after the latest violent outbreak, it looked as though it might, when a Labour government - Ben Gurion's old party, of course - offered the Palestinians most of the West Bank and a deal on Jerusalem. But the terms weren't good enough for Yasser Arafat to accept.

The other day I drove south from Jerusalem towards Hebron. David Ben Gurion must have flown over this stretch of land that day in 1967, but many of the rocky, open hillsides he saw have disappeared under new Israeli settlements.

Instead there are row after row of concrete houses with red-tiled roofs - suburban sprawl comes to the Holy Land. Solar panels glint in the sun. Volvo estate wagons - the quintessential settlers' car - stand in the forecourts.

Even the road was new. It skirted round Palestinian areas and linked the settlements to each other and to Jerusalem.

Palestinian drivers usually get turned back at the Israeli road-blocks. It adds to the passionate bitterness on the Palestinian side, worse than anything I can remember in 20 years of reporting here.

Over the divide


Despite the pomegranate trees, the mushroom farms and the vineyards, it's hard to think that a place like Tekoa has a long-term future

In the distance, behind the slabs of concrete which the Israeli army has put up to protect drivers from Palestinian snipers, you can see the towns and villages the road avoids, with their tall, pencil-like minarets.

There, people aren't so afraid of the Israelis any more. As Israel has swung back and forth between conciliation and toughness, it has made a classic error.

First it gave the Palestinians limited self-government and weapons to defend themselves with, and then tried to clamp down on them again. It doesn't work. It can't work.

Everyone senses this now. When I reached the settlement of Tekoa, an Old Testament Jewish site where the prophet Amos once lived, and which dominates the landscape in traditional fortress fashion, I found it wasn't one of those West Bank settlements where people with New York accents chase you away if you have a television camera.

It's older - about 20 years old now - and not exclusively religious.
Discovery of bodies in a cave near Tekoa
The bodies of two Israeli teenagers were found in a cave near Tekoa

I spoke to a writer, an academic, a web-designer and a man who used to cut diamonds. They were all worried. Plenty of people in Tekoa want to get out, but can't sell their houses. Some are too scared even to drive out of the settlement.

It's only a month since two young boys from Tekoa were captured by Palestinian shepherds in the valley below, and brutally stoned to death.

Despite the pomegranate trees, the mushroom farms and the vineyards, it's hard to think that a place like Tekoa has a long-term future.

Contrasting approaches

Earlier this year the Labour government under Ehud Barak was willing to give it up, and plenty of other West Bank settlements with it.

The man who beat Barak in the February election, Ariel Sharon, has swung the other way, and said he wouldn't give up any settlements. But someone, at some point, will.

Nowadays, some Israelis talk more and more about drawing up a fixed frontier to separate Palestinians and Jews, just like the one that existed before the six-day war.

The West Bank
An estimated 200,000 settlers live in the West Bank and Gaza
Looking out over this landscape, much as David Ben Gurion surveyed it from his helicopter 34 years ago, you can see how hard it is to control. Give it all back at once, was what he said.

Everything would have been different if that had happened - no settlers, no snipers, no suicide bombers, no guilt. Maybe wanting fixed frontiers is simply nostalgia for the safety of the good old days.

But in this harsh landscape, broken here and there with the red roofs of Israeli settlements, you can see the attraction.


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29 May 01 | Media reports
18 May 01 | Middle East
18 May 01 | Middle East
06 May 01 | Middle East
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