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Dismantling of West Bank Outposts Doesn't Alarm Efrat Settlers - 2002-07-11

In recent days the Israeli government has dismantled more than a dozen Jewish outposts in the West Bank. On a barren, rocky hilltop, a group of Jews are sheltered inside temporary buildings, studying the word of God.

Two military watchtowers, one draped with an Israeli flag, guard the buildings, which are also protected by a ring of concrete barriers. The protection is needed because the buildings are on the edge of Efrat, a Jewish settlement of 6,000 people.

When the members of the group, young people studying to be rabbis, look up from their prayers, they do not have to look too far to see Palestinians laboring in orchard groves in the valley below. But the Efrat settlement is not far from Israel either. Jerusalem is only a 10-minute drive away.

One day, the founders of Efrat hope, it may become a city and the temporary buildings where the students are studying will be replaced by grander, more permanent structures. Last week, as the Israeli army tore down unauthorized Jewish outposts in other parts of the West Bank, bulldozers moved earth for the building of more new homes in Efrat.

The settlers believe the destruction of the outposts poses little threat to established settlements like Efrat. The outposts are usually small and makeshift, mostly caravans and shipping containers, and few people live in them.

Nahaniel Wolfish, 28, is one of the teachers at the Efrat seminary, called a yeshiva. He says the settler movement is willing to allow the government to tear down token outposts as long as it does nothing that affects the larger communities, settlements like Efrat.

Mr. Wolfish says the settlers realize that tearing down the outposts distracts attention from the settlements, which he says is not necessarily a bad thing. "It is a game. It is a game," he repeated, "Because the settlers feel, if they do not play the game, they will evacuate them from the main settlements."

The Efrat settlers appear to have no fears of evacuation. The new yeshiva, in addition to teaching the word of God, serves an important strategic purpose. Mr. Wolfish says that the leaders of Efrat encouraged the establishment of the school on its present site in order to prevent Palestinians from pressing their own claims to the land.

"This was part of Efrat but no one was here," Mr. Wolfish said. "Efrat wanted somebody to come over and settle here, so the Arabs would not try to settle here."

The official position of the Palestinian Authority is that the whole of the West Bank belongs to the Palestinian people, and the Jewish settlers, who number about 200,000, must return to Israel proper.

Though Mr. Wolfish acknowledges that one day Jews and Palestinians have to reach a political compromise, he says evacuation is not an option. He says Efrat is part of the ancient land of Israel.

"This is our Promised Land," he said. "Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank) are part of the places, where our ancestors used to live. When my grandfather thought of going back to Israel, he did not think of Tel Aviv."

All the residents of Efrat seem to share the same conviction - they have right to live in the territory.

Mordechai Goodman moved to Efrat from the United States. Born in Houston, Texas, he later moved to New York City, where for a time he operated a sales company from an office in the Empire State building. He runs a popular pizzeria in Efrat, with the support of some of his nine children.

He says Jews have every right to settle in the West Bank because they won it in battle, just like Americans have the right to live in Houston, Texas, land that once belonged to Mexico.

"This is conquered land, the same as Houston, where I am from," Mr. Goodman explained. "Houston was conquered from Mexico and nobody from Mexico ever asked us to leave Houston and let the Mexicans move back because there was a war and the land was conquered. As most lands are in most countries, wherever you live. So we live in Israel."

At one time, before the latest fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, Efrat was a model of peaceful co-existence. The settlers mixed freely with their Palestinian neighbors. Since the Intifada, however, Efrat is off-limits to all Palestinians.

Two suicide bombings in Efrat, one failed attempt against the local supermarket and another against paramedics, led the settlers to ban all Palestinians from working or shopping inside the settlement.

This is sad, says Avichai Van Leeuwen, who runs a restaurant and a cafe with his wife Rochelle. "I feel bad for the people that used to work for me," he said. "I feel bad for the innocents."

But Mr. Van Leeuwen points out that many Jewish families have also suffered because of the violence. And while he feels bad for the Palestinians, he says he has even more understanding for the suffering of his own people.