THE explosive controversy over the expansion of the West Bank settlement town of Efrat, five miles south of Jerusalem, to territory regarded by the neighboring Palestinian village of Al Khadar as its ancestral land demonstrates why the issue of settlements will impede the peace process until it is faced squarely and decisively.
That this dispute and the passionate demonstrations it sparked have taken place in this location of the West Bank illustrates the incompatibility of settlements and the peace process. Unlike Hebron, the areas around Efrat and Al Khadar do not attract the most ideological Israelis or Palestinians. Efrat residents have claimed they wish to live peacefully with local Palestinians; Al Khadar residents have supported PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's peace policies.
Efrat's settlers regard themselves as having returned to their Biblical home on land they acquired legally from the Israeli government. The hill where they want to expand their settlement reflects, to them, the organic growth of an existing community.
Residents of Al Khadar view Efrat's effort to build on a neighboring hill as a forcible takeover of land owned by Palestinian families for generations. They never recognized Israel's claim to unworked West Bank property as ``state lands'' and have regarded the settlements as unwelcome, illegal intrusions. The Palestinian protest to Efrat's expansion has received support from some Israeli Cabinet ministers and from private groups like Peace Now. Israeli West Bank expert Meron Benvenisti has called the 15-year-old policy initiated by the former Likud government, under which Israel took title to all unregistered, unworked West Bank territory, ``theft disguised by legal means.''
Residents of Efrat and Al Khadar have come up against two irreducible facts in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: Two peoples claim the same land that must be apportioned by territorial compromise, not unilateral land grabs. As long as the settlement issue persists, it will impede the peace process. Fundamental differences must be addressed politically if peace is to be achieved.
Israeli settlements dot the West Bank, sometimes in the midst of heavy concentrations of Palestinians. About 40,000 cars belonging to settlers must pass through narrow roads in Palestinian villages. These two populations are closely intertwined yet fundamentally hostile. Their constant and inevitable encounters can only result in continuing tension and conflict.