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Where Mideast Peace Hits Hard

Jewish settlements on the West Bank are among the areas most affected by the new Wye accord. Settlers plot to block withdrawal.

Yigal Amitay, one of the front-line warriors against last month's Wye peace agreement, looks out from his living-room window to the barren mountains above Nablus, the largest Arab city in the West Bank.

From here he doesn't see the city of 120,000 Palestinians behind the next mountain - literally or figuratively. What matters to him is that his house faces Shechem - the first place, according to the book of Genesis, where God led Abraham into the promised land.

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Just outside, an Army jeep bounces by on the security road that rings the settlement, home to 400 of the most ideological right-wingers anywhere in Israel - except that soon most of the land around Yitzhar will no longer be part of Israel, or Israeli-occupied land, depending on one's viewpoint.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu withdraws troops from 13 percent of the West Bank, as he agreed to do 10 days ago, Yitzhar looks almost certain to be one of several settlements that will be treading water in a sea of Palestinian-controlled territory.

Mr. Amitay and others are still hoping they can reverse the land-for-peace process.

The settlers are considering their options - from convincing Mr. Netanyahu to renege, to toppling him and tendering another candidate who will stay true to his nationalist campaign promises. They're also trying to show Yitzhar's permanence on the map by expanding the settlement by any means - from taking over the hilltop next door to shooting at Palestinians who try to gather this year's olive harvest in the groves that border Yitzhar.

Though the Israeli media have portrayed the Yitzhar settlers as extreme, residents here make no excuses for shooting at local Arab farmers - and, in some cases, reporters and Israeli peace activists who had come in solidarity with the Palestinian olive-pickers.

Amitay says that neighboring villagers haven't cultivated the trees near Yitzhar for a decade but have been emboldened to do so by the arrival of the Palestinian Authority in the area. And among the people coming to collect olives, he says, are terrorists coming to collect information on Yitzhar.

On the same road the Army jeep patrols, two young Yitzhar residents were murdered late one night this August as they made their rounds on volunteer guard duty - an act people here say could only have been planned with intelligence about security procedures at the settlement.

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"I am prepared that many innocent Palestinians will not get their olives if even one of them is a terrorist trying to get to Yitzhar," says Amitay.

Early last year, Amitay's sixth child was on the cover of Israel's largest daily newspaper, the Yedioth Ahronoth tabloid, when Yitzhar went through a series of stormy confrontations with the Army. The settlers decided to take control of a hilltop about a mile away, and Shulamit, then just one year old, was slightly injured in the melee of forcefully evicting the settlers from the makeshift houses they had pitched.

Amitay is proud of her, and the fact that the settlers succeeded in their maneuver to expand the settlement - to the chagrin of all Palestinians, some Israelis, and the American government, which considers the 150-odd Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza "obstacles to peace."

Though the Israeli government initially tried to eject the settlers, since they had not been given permission for the move, officials eventually gave in and let them stay.

"We want to put facts on the ground while the status of the land is still unclear," says Amitay. "Now all the land between the farm and us is our land. You have to create the reality or the reality will move to you."

Vigilante settlement

History has taught the people of Yitzhar that vigilante settlement usually works. Thirty years ago, Rabbi Moshe Levinger and his wife, Miriam, arrived at a hotel in Hebron with a group of activists, posing as tourists. They refused to leave, saying they had returned to what had always been, until the riots of 1929, a Jewish city.

After a year-long standoff with the Israeli government, they were given land to build the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba and eventually allowed to settle in Hebron as well.

"We did what we thought was right," says Mrs. Levinger, who still lives in the Hebron building she camped out at with a group of women three decades earlier. "We just said, 'We have to come back to Hebron.' God wants us to be in Hebron, and it's something very sustaining to live near the tombs of our forefathers," she says, referring to the city's Tomb of the Patriarchs, a tense place of worship for both Jews and Muslims.

Amitay is honored by the comparison to the Levingers of 1968. He says then, as now, it was possible to impose their will on reluctant officials.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game. We build it in the night, the Army disturbs us the next day. It's a process. When you show that you are insistent and that you're here to say, the government will let us have our way. Levinger opened the road in Hebron. He's a little hero of the settlers."

Unlike the popular image of a settlement walled off from hostile surroundings, there is no fence around Yitzhar. In part, that's because they don't want to limit their size. Amitay, the spokesman for the settlement, says they've asked the government to build 600 new houses here.

But they also want to show their neighbors they want to be the sea, not the deserted island in it. "We want to graze our sheep and show the Arabs that we have a normal life. I want them to feel that every piece of land I see is ours," says Amitay.

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators begin debating the fate of the West Bank in "final status" talks, settlers and villagers are trying to make their own conclusions about the fate of individual vineyards and hilltops claimed by both sides.

Last week, the tensions between Yitzhar and neighboring villages erupted when an elderly Palestinian man walking through his olive groves, which border on the Israeli settlement of Itamar, was bludgeoned to death.

On the day of his funeral, his neighbors blamed the settlers. "We have a lot of trees close to the settlement where we're unable to pick the olives or they shoot at us," said Abdullah Daoud, as members of his family plucked the small purple fruit. "My olives are my most important source of income. The Army doesn't bother us; the settlers do, but the Army never stops them."

That is not to say the Israeli government has never stopped settlers from having their way. Three years after Israel signed the 1979 Camp David accords, agreeing to return the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, leaders of Netanyahu's own right-wing Likud Party ordered the use of force to evict settlers there.

Many of today's settlers are fearful they may face the same fate. Others hold fast to a messianic belief that the process of settling the lands they call by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, cannot be halted by man alone. The Wye Memorandum seems to be splitting the settlers as no other accord has, highlighting the differences between mere hard-liners and true extremists.

Extremist threats

Highlighting those divisions, the leader of the main settlers' council has received death threats, because some perceive him to be too weak in his opposition to Netanyahu's plan. (Security around Netanyahu himself has been beefed up, especially in light of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed three years ago this week.)

The spokeswoman for the settlers' council, Yehudit Tayar, says such extremists are not representative of most settlers. "Fringe elements are causing tension. Some of them are not a part of us. We have a lot of people who are very level-headed and just want to raise a family," she says.

Either way, Netanyahu faces a difficult battle in trying to get the settlers, who gave him overwhelming support in the 1996 election, to lend it now. The National Religious Party, which represents the settlers' interests, says it probably will leave Netanyahu's coalition if he carries out the withdrawal.

But some settlers say the answers aren't quite so clear. If they bring down Netanyahu, they might not find a better alternative to take his place.

And a few, perhaps quieter voices say they're willing to give Bibi, as he is popularly called, a chance to prove himself. "I think Bibi's bringing us the best agreement he could," says Efrat Biton, who owns a restaurant in Ofra, home to many of the settlers' mainstream leaders. Like the majority of settlers, according to one recent poll, she moved here primarily for financial reasons - the housing was cheaper.

But she's willing to turn her back on it. "Despite the fact that I don't trust the Arabs, for real peace, I'd be willing to give this all up and move back to Tel Aviv."

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