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San Francisco Chronicle: "Jewish settlements a growing obstacle to peace"

"...the settlement population in the West Bank has doubled to 260,000 inhabitants since the construction of the last official settlement 12 years ago, according to Peace Now,..."

by Daniel Heimpel, Special to The Chronicle

Thursday, October 9, 2008

PDT Maskiyot Settlement, West Bank --

As a freelance journalist, I wanted to visit the West Bank and speak with Palestinians and Israelis about prospects for peace beyond official statements and sound bites.

So I scanned the news and found numerous references to Maskiyot, a tiny Jewish settlement among 26 others in the barren expanse of the northern Jordan Valley. Its current inhabitants are just eight families, six of whom came from the Gaza Strip after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005.

What caught my eye was an editorial in the Jerusalem Post that described Maskiyot as a "Trojan horse" that could spark the construction of more settlements with Gaza refugees throughout the 75-mile-long Jordan Valley.

At the end of July, the Defense Ministry had approved the construction of 20 homes at Maskiyot, a former Israeli military base. When that happens, it will become the first official new settlement in the West Bank since 1996 and most assuredly a major sticking point to a future two-state solution.

I called Maskiyot's leader, asking for an interview. A day later, I drove down a lonely road through a landscape of caves, bramble plants and occasional Bedouin camps to visit a man I envisioned would be a zealot with flowing beard and a sidearm. Instead, I met Yosi Chazut, 29, who has a tightly cropped pate and a calm disposition. Having spent his entire life in Gaza, he was bitter that his family and 8,500 others were forced to leave their homes.

"I gave up my home there and what did we get in return?" asked Chazut while seated on a plastic chair in front of a trailer that he shares with his wife and three children. "We got Qassam rocket attacks on Sderot" (a town near the Gaza border).

New Yorker in West Bank
Two days later, I drove to Bet Arye, a Jewish settlement near the West Bank city of Ariel to meet with Ephraim Bluth, a former New Yorker. Zionist idealism drove him to settle there in the early 1970s after Israel wrested the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War of 1967.

For many Israelis, the West Bank and its 2.3 million Palestinians have demographically imperiled Israel's future as a Jewish state. They believe Israel has only two choices: give up land for peace or maintain the occupation until Palestinian anger boils over into a full-scale insurrection. Shortly after announcing his resignation in September, even Prime Minister Ehud Olmert contradicted the tone he had maintained throughout his political career, calling for withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories," Olmert told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

But Bluth and many other settlers say there is a third alternative - military might and new settlements will preserve Israel and the West Bank (which they call by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria), as a Jewish state.

'Be tough'
If Israel "makes clear that the Jewish presence in the Middle East, in the state of Israel is permanent, I think that ultimately our enemies will understand that there is no way they will extricate Jews from this area of the world," he said. "I think that the only way to win at this game is to be tough."

Tough or not, the Palestinians I met on the other side of the checkpoints see Maskiyot and other Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley as a temporary phenomenon.

On the outskirts of Jericho, one of a handful of cities under Palestinian control, I met Fathy Khdirat. He heads Jordan Valley Solidarity, a volunteer organization that monitors the Israeli occupation and uses funds sent by individuals mostly from Europe and Asia to build schools and fight legal battles against alleged unlawful seizures of Palestinian properties by Israeli authorities.

Khdirat took me to the home of several Palestinian Bedouins who live 18 miles south of Maskiyot in the town of Al-Hadidiya. Under the shade of a large corrugated shed, a dozen Palestinians complained about long waits and searches at numerous Israeli checkpoints and bulldozers that topple militants' homes.

"The settlements must disappear," said Khdirat, who was born in the Jordan Valley village of Bardala. "It is exactly like Gaza. What happened to the settlements in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula? They (Israelis) themselves knocked it down, and they will do the same here."

Khdirat took me to see farmer Jasser Daragmeh in El Farsiya, a Palestinian community near Maskiyot and four other Jewish settlements. Daragmeh said Israeli authorities had threatened to tear down his home since it did not conform to building codes - a common pretense, he said, to push Palestinians off their land.

Tales of violence
Daragmeh then invited me to drink tea with his father, Nori, and a neighbor, Faiq Spah. On a patch of dirt in the descending dark, they told me stories of sheep being shot from Israeli helicopters, a brother killed by an Israeli mortar and the constant threat of armed settlers behind electric fences and razor wire.

"We have been patient, but I don't know what my children will do," said Spah. His meaning was clear, that even though his generation had not fought the occupation, his children and grandchildren would.

Lior Avnon, a spokesperson for Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Barak will sign off on the construction of Maskiyot as soon as architects draw up the necessary plans. Most importantly, it will deal yet another blow to the all-but-dead U.S.-sponsored "road map."

Both sides have come terribly short of achieving even the first phase of the 5-year-old road map - Palestinians have been unable to keep militant groups from attacking Israel, while the Israelis have been unwilling to halt the growth of existing settlements in the West Bank. In fact, the settlement population in the West Bank has doubled to 260,000 inhabitants since the construction of the last official settlement 12 years ago, according to Peace Now, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that advocates land for peace. The government says the numbers reflect the natural growth of the existing population.

While the lights from Maskiyot shone brightly in the distance, Khdirat said that land for peace may not be enough anymore.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know if there is a chance for peace."