Settlers fear becoming island amid hostile Palestinian turf

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KARME TZUR, West Bank — If and when the Wye agreement is ever fully implemented, the 70 Jewish families in this settlement will be shut off from the rest of Israel, surrounded on all sides by Arab villages handed over to the Palestinian Authority.

In all, 18 of the West Bank's 144 Jewish settlements will be partially or completely surrounded by Palestinian-controlled land.

Many in Israel, especially secular Jews, think West Bank residents like those in Karme Tzur — all of whom are religious nationalists and part of the Gush Emunim movement — should pack up and cross back over the Green Line. The secularists are especially aggravated that their sons and daughters must don uniforms and guard settlements against possible attacks.

Moshe Fogel, the head of the Israeli government's press office, asserts that settlers are misunderstood.

"The average Israeli doesn't get here. A lot of what they hear about the concerns of the people living here, they hear through the media," said Fogel, who accompanied American journalists on a tour of the settlement late last month.

Resident Gedaliah Gower agreed and added that religious zealotry didn't bring him here, as many Israelis believe. Instead, it was "the quality of life here that I won't have anyplace else."

He pointed to the neat single-family homes with their cute red-tile roofs and tidy gardens, which give a real suburban feel to the 300-member community about halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron.

Gower has lived in Karme Tzur for 12 of the settlement's 14 years of existence. He doesn't want to move to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, where high living expenses would force him and his family into a small flat.

In explaining his reason for staying, he barely mentions religious ties to the West Bank that many observant Jews refer to by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria.

In years past, religious settlers vowed to visiting journalists that they would never surrender the land of their ancestors or their vision of a Greater Israel. Now, Gower and others at Karme Tzur decline to be drawn into a discussion about the land's biblical past, choosing instead to focus on the quality of life in their "Jerusalem suburb" and the right of settlers to remain on land that past Israeli governments had encouraged them to call home.

Yes, there is a downside to the serenity they experience living here. Gower readily concedes that his kids must travel to a neighboring settlement in a school bus with bulletproof glass with an armed escort. And his personal car, like most cars belonging to West Bank settlers, has had bulletproof glass installed. To drive to the border of Jerusalem, he will have to pass two neighboring Arab villages.

Yehudit Tayar, public relations director of Yesha, which represents settlers from 144 West Bank communities, said settlers know the dangers are growing.

"If you go to any of our houses at night, you can hear the shootings. The Palestinians are practicing," said Tayar, who lives in a nearby West Bank settlement.

"Daily, all day, there are rocks and drive-by shootings. Jews are being shot and killed or risking attempted murder."

Is this any place to raise a family?

According to Tayar, it is. "Our kids, thank God, are normal kids. When I was recently in the United States I called home and my kids said, `Did you lock your door? You're in the United States and it's dangerous.'"

Gower also rationalizes the peril that he and his family face, noting that terrorists can be found outside of Israel as well. He said he was a shaliach (emissary) in Miami a few years back, and remembers the community's fears after some tourists were shot and killed on the freeway.

"The more we are burdened and under pressure here at Karme Tzur, the more people want to come," he said, pointing to a large plot of land where the settlement leaders hope to build 40 more homes for Jewish families.

Only four months ago, the settlers erected a large, ornate synagogue. A mechitzah in the rear separates wives from their husbands who pray up front.

A mechitzah in the West Bank, separating Arab from Jew, is what Gower and other settlers would really like to see.

At the very least, he would like to see a bypass road built so he could safely drive by the neighboring Arab villages to reach the main Israel-protected highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

"Our government told us to come here 14 years ago," he said. "Now they are ignoring us."

Tayar spoke of a recent meeting held between settlers and Israeli military authorities to discuss how Karme Tzur and other settlements will be protected from the enlarged Palestinian Authority area.

"What I heard is that all over Israel the military is preparing for war," she said. "There are installing early-warning systems, rerouting water resources and making plans against Palestinian terrorism."

Gower added rhetorically, "Are you talking about starting a peace process or starting a war?"

He said that unlike the 3,000 residents — who under intense pressure left the settlement of Yamit when Israel turned the Sinai back to Egypt in 1982 — the 170,000 West Bank settlers won't surrender their homes so easily.

Is there a veiled threat against his own government? Gower won't speak further on the topic. But he remains optimistic that a final confrontation will never happen.

"I think there will be a blowup somewhere and the peace process won't continue," he said.