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Israeli Settlers Send Clear Message

Move to hasten new Jewish settlements in Arab lands is seen as bid to stall US peace initiative

A WEEK ago, this rocky hillside did not have a name. Among its boulders grew wild flowers and a few twisted olive trees, but from the minaret of the village mosque across the valley, nothing more could be seen. Overnight last Tuesday, this slope suddenly became Revava, as Jewish settlers bulldozed the earth level and installed 14 mobile homes. Under cover of darkness, they had created the newest settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and raised a political storm in the process.

It is precisely the multiplication of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories that is proving a major point of controversy here as United States Secretary of State James Baker III begins a new round of talks in his Middle East peace initiative.

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The US government has long regarded Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as "an obstacle to peace," and Mr. Baker has told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir so at each of their meetings. He has apparently failed, however, to shake the government's conviction that "settlement in all parts of the land of Israel is a right and an inseparable part of national security," in the words of its policy guidelines.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, have insisted that settlement activity must stop before any negotiations on the future of the occupied territories start. "If they continue with their creeping annexation [through settlement], who is going to believe the Israelis want peace?" asks Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij rhetorically after meeting Baker 10 days ago.

The settlers from the Gush Emunim movement who established Revava timed the action as their message to the US envoy.

"No doubt the frequent visits of Baker to Israel ... put us on a much quicker pace than we were before," says Daniela Weiss, a Gush Emunim leader. "We feel that the only right answer to Baker's pressure on Israel is building new settlements."

Trailers in the night

The trailers appeared on the site overnight, after the Army had declared the zone a "closed military area" to keep protesters and journalists away, without the usual preliminary studies that precede settlement.

"This was not done properly," complains Yehiel Leket of the settlements division of the World Zionist Organization, the body charged with overseeing the establishment of rural settlements. "It was done without any professional exploration."

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"This is an adventure between Gush Emunim and [Housing Minister Ariel] Sharon," Mr. Leket charges. "It's not the first time they broke all the rules on the West Bank. They wanted a political demonstration."

Mr. Sharon announced recently that his ministry intends to build 13,000 homes in the occupied territories over the next two years, at a pace five times faster than it has maintained in recent years. If that goal is met, it will increase the settler population, now about 200,000, by a quarter.

Responding to US expressions of concern over these plans, Israeli officials have assured Baker that they could only be carried out with full Cabinet approval. But Foreign Minister David Levy said in a recent interview that if the houses were built "to expand existing settlements [rather than create new ones] there is no need for government approval."

Sharon insists anyway that he is merely ensuring "the implementation of government decisions with the knowledge of the Cabinet and prime minister and with the premier's blessing," as he told the ruling Likud Party's defense and foreign affairs committee this week. Mr. Shamir has not disavowed this statement.

The appearance of Revava on the eve of Baker's visit raised awkward questions about the government's role. Ms. Weiss told reporters that "these trailers do not belong to private individuals, they belong to the settlement movement that got them from the government for the purpose to enhance an act of settlement. This settlement is 100 percent government approved for today."

Though officials denied funding or encouraging Revava, questions were raised as to how Gush Emunim acquired 14 mobile homes so quickly from a factory that has a huge back orders from the Housing Ministry.

"You can't get caravans for new immigrants, but 14 of them appeared real fast in Revava," points out Ettee Prince Gibson, a spokeswoman for the anti-settlement Peace Now movement. "That isn't private people."

"This settlement, in general, is a government project," Weiss says. "The electricity, the road, the whole system. What you see here on the large scale is a government investment."

Government embarrassed

Although the government is embarrassed by the timing of the creation of Revava, it appears concerned more by the form than by the content of the move. Mr. Levy this week rebuked Sharon for his outspoken support of settlement because "superfluous declarations ... will bring pressure upon Israel. You do not build anything by blowing trumpets, but trumpets brought down the walls of Jericho."

Leftist parliament member Yossi Sarid, of the Citizens' Rights Movement, says the Revava operation was like "putting a bomb on Baker's plane to blow his peace mission to smithereens." From the other end of the political spectrum, Weiss agrees.

Brandishing an Israeli flag as a family moved its belongings into a trailer behind her, she was defiant. "This way we explain in the clearest manner that what we want to do here is to continue Jewish settlement and not to go on the peace settlement. It's settlements versus settlement."

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