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Acting amid stalled peace, Israeli settlers sink in roots

Almost 20 settlements may have sprouted since Wye accord

If you've never seen this dateline before, that's because it didn't exist until a few months ago.

After the Wye accords were signed last October in an attempt to resume Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Mitzpeh Danny came to be. Angry about the agreement, Israeli settlers moved a cluster of mobile homes to this barren hilltop, plunked down a generator, erected a road sign, and called it home.

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Now eight families make up the population of Mitzpeh Danny, one of the newest facts on the ground in the settlers' race to prevent disputed land from being handed over to Palestinians. According to Peace Now, a dovish Israeli group that opposes settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, Mitzpeh Danny is one of 19 new settlements established since the Wye accords were signed.

About half of those were erected since Israeli legislators agreed to hold early elections next month, a move that threatens to cut short the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu's office says that these new settlements are all within the boundaries of existing settlements. And he argues that, contrary to American and Palestinian claims, Israel never agreed to limit settlement growth when it signed the Wye accords.

"Run, grab hills," Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon told settlers after he helped negotiate the Wye accords, in a controversial call to what critics consider vigilante settlement. Like many others, Nehama and Baruch Dorer took him seriously.

"We could've done this before the Wye agreement, but we did it now because we needed to show our response," says Nehama Dorer, who moved to Mitzpeh Danny with her husband of two years. "If we can use this time to build new settlements, that's wonderful," she says.

Inside their boxy "caravan," as people here call the mobile homes, air conditioning, new furniture, and a vase of fresh flowers set upon a doily are a testimony to the extent to which they consider themselves at home. The real goal, Mrs. Dorer says, is not actually a new settlement - but the unification with the one across the road: Maale Michmas, a settlement founded in 1981. There, a crane clatters as a new neighborhood of regular homes is being built. The empty land between here and there would eventually be full of homes, doubling the settlement in size.

And then some. Three miles down the highway is another satellite of Maale Michmas named Hageet. Home to two young couples who plan to raise livestock, Hageet is so topographically far from the original settlement that the terrain between the two places changes dramatically - from low-lying, arable hills to dry desert mountains.

The new settlements haven't actually been sanctioned by the government, but laissez faire enforcement seems to have sent out the message. "The government didn't give us a permit. They just didn't prevent it," Dorer says. "I think Netanyahu would like to help us even more, but he can't right now." Looking out at the vast, undeveloped countryside around her, she adds, "Just because I came up to this hill, there can't be peace?"

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To be sure, there is almost nothing nearby. It's quite far away from the nearest Palestinian village, also called Michmas. The self-ruled city of Ramallah lies to the distant west.

But that, say Palestinians, is not the point. To them, every new settler is a roadblock to declaring a state on a contiguous piece of land, and every new mobile home a symbol of Israel breaking the peace agreement.

"These settlements are complicating the situation. At the end there will be no room for compromise, and there will be no land on which a Palestinian state can be established," says Ziad Abu Ziad, a cabinet minister in Arafat's government.

The Clinton administration also thinks this latest spurt toward settlement expansion shows bad faith. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other State Department officials have been highly critical of Israel on the settlement issue in recent weeks. One senior US official points out that new Israeli settlements weaken the US argument at a time when the US has been pressuring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat not to unilaterally declare a independent state on May 4 - when the five-year interim period set by the Oslo Accords comes to an end.

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