BEIT EL, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK
JEWISH settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, fearful for the future of their communities, went into high gear this week in a campaign to derail the Middle East peace talks that would give Palestinians autonomy.
Convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is readying a deal that would spell doom for the settlements, some activists are threatening civil disobedience and violence should an autonomy plan be signed.
"I am almost sure there will be armed conflicts," says Benny Katzover, leader of the Elon Moreh settlement. "There will be more and more clashes between Arabs and Jews. Autonomy cannot work."
The settlers are especially worried by the Israeli government's plans to put 60 percent of the territories under Palestinian control, its readiness to accept a Palestinian police force in that area, and Palestinian demands for control over water sources in the West Bank.
Israeli Police Minister Moshe Shahal said this week he envisioned 4,000 Palestinian police in the proposed autonomous zone, in line with the Camp David accords' provision for a "strong local police force."
The prospect of armed Palestinians enjoying authority over them is causing high anxiety among settlers. To dramatize the sort of incidents they worry would become commonplace, a settlers' group this week staged and filmed an angry altercation between mock Palestinian police armed with submachine guns and a carload of Israelis driving through the occupied territories.
"Who will guarantee that there won't be [radical Islamist] Hamas or Islamic Jihad militants in that police force?" asks Shmaya Shlozberg, a builders' merchant in this settlement north of Jerusalem.
Mr. Katzover is blunt. "Everyone knows that today's terrorist will become tomorrow's policeman, and we are notifying everyone, including the government, that Jewish people [in the territories] will take no orders from such police."
Some settler leaders go even further, saying they are organizing their own police force in preparation for the day when Israeli troops withdraw from the streets in an autonomous region.
"If the government abandons my security, then I will have to take care of it myself," Baruch Marzel, the leader of the extreme right-wing Kach movement, told the daily Haaretz. "Currently most of the settlers in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip are preparing for action. The problem is how to obtain large amounts of weapons."
The settlers are also warning of danger to all Israelis should the government concede to the Palestinian demand for control over water resources in the West Bank. Thirty percent of Israel's water supply is drawn from aquifers underneath the West Bank, where Palestinians are currently forbidden to drill wells.
If they enjoyed full rights to their water "they would cut us off," argues Shlomo Dukan, a settler in Beit El. "Just as they don't hesitate to stab Israelis today, they would not hesitate to turn the tap off."
In the long term, the settlers are convinced that the five-year autonomy regime currently under negotiation would lead inevitably to an independent Palestinian state in which Jews would find it impossible to live. Even before then, settlers are concerned that Palestinian autonomy over anything except Palestinian towns and villages would spell disaster for the Jewish settlements.
"If they have autonomy over the land, the settlements will be strangled," says Bob Lang, of the settlers' group Emunim. "They could build around the settlements and along the roads that lead to them."
Should that happen, Katzover warns, "we will physically interrupt the construction of any house they start to build."
Settler leaders hope their campaign against autonomy will win public opinion to their side and force the government to hold a referendum on the autonomy plan before implementing it. But a recent demonstration in Jerusalem against Mr. Rabin's negotiating strategy drew only 3,000 people.
"Everyone in the country wants peace, but there is a lot of apathy," Mr. Lang worries. "When people start to care, it will be too late."
Recent polls suggest that the 120,000 settlers do not enjoy wide enough support to press their case. A survey in January by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies found that 60 percent of Israelis were willing to return territories for peace, up from 38 percent seven years ago.
"We are going through very difficult times," Lang condedes. "I want to believe that something will happen to make the whole [autonomy] thing fall apart, but I can't sit back. I need people to complain, to write letters, to go on hunger strikes."
For Ehud Sprinzak, though, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and an expert on the radical right, the settlers' campaign "is not an expression of their strength. I think it represents a cry of distress."