Through war and peace, Labor and Likud governments, Israeli settlements have continued to expand on the West Bank in a major impediment to ending the conflict with the Palestinians. But increasing attacks on these exposed settlements have shown their vulnerability and led to the departure of some Israelis. Palestinians say a near total withdrawal is essential for peace and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
In the small West Bank settlement of Adora, Yaacov Sheffi relaxed when he saw two men in Israeli Defense Force (army) uniforms. It turned out not to be so. Palestinians in disguise, they started shooting at him. While he bolted away, they broke into his cottage and shot his five-year-old daughter, Danielle, in the head.
That is the price some Israelis pay for living in greater Israel, an estimated 210,000 in 120 West Bank settlements. Surrounded by Palestinians who deeply resent them, they are protected by Israeli forces, but not against the random terrorist intent on revenge, no matter who his victim.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, Ari Shavit says Mr. Sheffi and the other settlers are caught between the greater Israel proponents led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian gunmen. They are truly trapped, facing the bleakest of futures.
This hardly constitutes security for Israel, writes Mr. Shavit. Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia, agrees, "If I could picture myself in one of those settlements, I think that the handwriting would seem to be on the wall. It is not a safe place to stay, that is for sure. Most of the settlers would, in fact, be willing to relocate if provided compensation, and the number of people who are diehards is relatively small."
Mr. Shavit writes in Ha'aretz that some 60 percent of the settlers live in the West Bank because of lower housing costs, thanks to subsidies. The remainder believe in a greater Israel, but of these, less than 5,000 would resist all efforts to move them. That is not an insurmountable number, says Mr. Shavit.
Professor Katz says outsiders must get involved. "What I think is needed is a multi-national force, large numbers of soldiers heavily armed who will keep the peace," he suggested. "I think most people on both sides want peace, but they simply do not trust each other enough. They cannot go forward under present circumstances. They are going to have to be helped to get there."
The Israelis have the strength to prevail, says Professor Katz, but at an unacceptable cost in lives and property. The Israeli economy has taken a dive, if not as deeply as the Palestinian's.
Removal of the settlements is critical, says William Rugh, president of Amideast (American-Mideast Educational and Training Services) and a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
"Over the years," Ambassador Rugh observes, "one of the issues that has helped persuade Palestinians that Israelis are not serious about a resolution of the conflict is that settlements keep expanding. Even if new settlements are not built, existing ones are expanded or, as they say, 'thickened'."
Ambassador Rugh says the settlements can be eliminated as part of a comprehensive peace plan. "The settlements issue can be resolved if you have an overall package that includes a lot of other elements satisfactory to both sides," he concluded, "because each side is getting something. Then it gets possible to deal with the settlement problem in a productive fashion."
Something for both sides, say analysts, is essentially land for peace. If Israel withdraws from the settlements, making possible a Palestinian state, it needs iron-clad assurance of permanent peace on the part of the Palestinians and all the surrounding Muslim states.