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By BILL MAXWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2001
I came to understand the real meaning of the terms "occupation" and "settlers" in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict two years ago as I looked out the window of my room at the Marriott Hotel in Nazareth, a northern city in the West Bank.
The street below was tree-lined and shady, and the sidewalks were trimmed with beautiful flowers. Sun-bleached, limestone buildings with rust-colored roofs dotted the hillside.
One morning, I noticed a military jeep and a van in front of an apartment building. Four soldiers carrying automatic rifles got out of the jeep and entered the building. Two other soldiers got out of the van with their handguns drawn. One walked to the front of the jeep; the other paced behind the van. Moments later, the first soldiers emerged from the building with about a dozen children in tow.
The soldiers and the children walked up the sidewalk and disappeared over the hill. At breakfast, I asked my waiter about the scene. He explained that the children had to be escorted to and from school because their community of few hundred Jews was an outpost surrounded by tens of thousands of angry Palestinians. Theirs was not the only such Jewish enclave in this overwhelmingly Arab city.
During the week that I wrote from the Marriott, I saw dozens of different Israel Defense Forces vehicles and soldiers arrive and leave. At least one vehicle was always parked on the street. Even though Nazareth was peaceful then, Jewish residents lived in fear, and the IDF had to protect them from their Palestinian neighbors.
My observations in Nazareth did not prepare me for the mass anxiety around Hebron, also in the West Bank. One morning, I drove from Jerusalem south toward Hebron, where I would visit the shrines of the patriarchs. I stopped for gasoline outside a Palestinian village, and two Jewish settlers in a minivan drove in behind me.
When they got out of the vehicle, I was surprised to see huge handguns strapped to the hips of these two civilians. Two boys and a girl sat in back. One boy asked to go inside the station for a drink. One man, unholstering his weapon, opened the door, let the boy out, looked around and walked inside the building with him. The other man, his weapon drawn, pumped gas.
Suddenly, I feared that a group of Palestinians would appear, and I would be killed in cross-fire. How, I wondered, could grown-ups risk the lives of their children? How could they justify their action? What is the cause?
I hurriedly paid for my gas and drove away. A few miles down the road, I saw a settlement on a hilltop in the middle of Palestinian-controlled territory. Enclosed behind an 8-foot-high barbed-wire fence, the settlement consisted of only four new mobile homes, two sheds, a gazebo and a raised Israeli flag snapping in the wind. Two IDF jeeps were parked outside the gate. When I stopped to take photographs, a soldier got out of a jeep, approached me and told me to drive on. After I showed my press card, he backed off, politely touched his beret.
"There's been trouble," he said and left me alone.
Obviously, the handful of residents were inside the homes. As I got into my car, the minivan that had been at the station drove through the gate.
Everywhere I traveled in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, I saw Jewish settlements. Each seemed grossly out of place. But, as the Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz reported, new settlements were being built, and many established ones were expanding. Palestinians and their supporters held frequent rallies in Jerusalem protesting the construction.
And, today, settlement activity continues unabated. Few Jews in the United States understand the quagmire of Israel's refusal to freeze settlement activity. Many Israeli Jews, however, accept the truth and speak out.
Writing for the Jerusalem Report, founding editor Hirsh Goodman assesses the settlements' monetary burden: "Israel has probably spent more on settlements these past 30 years or so than on its nuclear program. It has probably spent more on settlements in the occupied territories than on building roads, railways and other infrastructure in Israel proper."
Unlike American Jews and hard-line Zionists in Israel, straight-thinkers, such as Goodman, understand the settlements' role in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians:
"We all know, even the most ideological among us, that at the end of the day, if there is ever to be peace with the Palestinians, most of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza will have to go. At best, maybe some pockets can be salvaged in exchange for Israeli territory near Gaza. Whether the Palestinians are capable of ever making peace with the Jews at the 1967 border is another question. But if peace is going to happen, we all know it's going to happen without Jewish settlers left living in Palestine under Israeli sovereignty."
A settlement freeze is the centerpiece of the Mitchell Report (recommendations by former Maine Sen. George Mitchell for a cooling-off period and confidence-building efforts by both sides). Apparently, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush are ignoring this part of the report. I do not recall that Bush has publicly opposed new settlement activity. From all indications, he has sided with Sharon, crudely dismissing Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
As of this writing, Sharon is scheduled to meet with Bush in Washington. The president flatly refuses to meet with Arafat. This snub is a huge mistake, and everyone directly or indirectly connected will pay for it -- including American taxpayers who annually dole out $1.2-billion in civilian aid and $1.8-billion in military aid to Israel. Much of our money is being used to nurture settlements and to finance military action against Palestinian civilians.
As Goodman writes, the 145 settlements in Gaza and the West Bank have been a colossal mistake in many ways.
"Enlarging them will only add fuel to the flames, giving Israel neither added security nor legitimacy," Goodman said recently. "If anything, the opposite is true. It will further complicate the security situation by providing the Palestinians with more targets and by diverting more Israeli soldiers to guard them. It also will erode the validity of Israel's legitimate arguments. Expanding the settlements now means more scarce funds being shoveled in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons. Doing so is nothing short of national lunacy. . . . Freeze the settlements now."
Yes, Hirsh Goodman, an Israeli Jew, is right. The settlements in the occupied territories and the Gaza Strip are national lunacy.