Settlers stage militant protests in land-for-peace battle

JERUSALEM– After a period of relative quiet, settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are gearing up for what they describe as the "final battle for our home."

As happened five years ago before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the extremist fringe of the settler movement is making statements that can easily be interpreted as threats on the premier's life.

The settler protests are growing as their fears increase that an agreement with the Palestinians is nearing — one that will require them to give up their homes when Israel gives up additional lands to the Palestinians and the final boundary lines are drawn.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the public security minister and Israel's negotiating team leader, predicted this week that an agreement would be reached within the next 14 days.

The settlers, for their part, do not want to wait until that happens.

In Jerusalem on Monday, thousands of Jewish settlers, many of them youths, converged on the Knesset to protest any further territorial concessions and what they say are government plans to abandon settlements.

"It's impossible for decisions of abandoning or uprooting families to be passed without an outcry," said Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"It's only moral and right that our children, our elderly and us, come out" to protest.

Those opposed to a peace deal with the Palestinians this week distributed thousands of CD-ROMs titled "How Much Is Your Life Worth?" which include graphics depicting the potential threat of a future Palestinian state to Israel's security.

Militant rabbis are also weighing in, as they issued statements that giving up any portion of the Land of Israel is contrary to Jewish law. One of them, Rabbi Daniel Shilo of Kedumim, recently wrote in a published commentary that "the transfer of parts of Eretz Yisrael amounts to treason."

Many recent statements recalled the atmosphere of incitement that preceded the Rabin assassination.

After Palestinian violence erupted in the territories last month, settler groups set up a protest tent in front of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's residence in Jerusalem and have demonstrated on a daily basis, almost in competition to deliver the most inflammatory rhetoric.

Benny Katzover, a well-known radical settler leader, this week called Yossi Sarid, the education minister, "an executioner among executioners," because he is "ready to transfer tens of thousands of Jews to the enlightened regime of his excellency Yasser Arafat," referring to the possibility that some West Bank settlements would become part of the self-rule areas.

Shimon Riklin, another militant settler leader, recently warned: "If Barak evacuates settlements, he might be murdered."

Carmi Gillon, head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, cautioned against such statements, emphasizing that they could lead to violence. Perhaps the biggest concern prompted by the heated rhetoric is that it will prompt another Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, to try to change the course of history.

Right-wing fanatics have been known to celebrate on Nov. 4, the anniversary of Rabin's murder, and threatening letters arrive regularly at the premier's office.

A recent poll commissioned by the Israeli daily Ma'ariv indicated that 46 percent of Israelis believe there is a real danger that another premier will be murdered.

Settler preparations for the "final battle" are strongest in the areas where radicalism is usually most pronounced — Hebron, Beit-El and Kedumim.

Significantly, anti-government activities are at a lower volume in areas like Gush Etzion and Ariel — regions that Israel has no intention of conceding.

Sources in the Shin Bet have stated repeatedly that since Rabin's murder, they have worked under the assumption that another political assassination is possible.

For their part, moderate settler leaders maintain that their camp will not be responsible for any violence.

In their view, Barak is to be blamed for deliberately creating an atmosphere of civil unrest, stirring public opinion against the settlers.

They add however, that they will not add to this atmosphere.

Rabbi Zalman Melamed of Yesha's rabbinical council last week urged protesters not to use violence, either physical or verbal.

"Even if, God forbid, we will be shot at, we shall not return the fire. We will be ready to be hurt, but we shall not hurt."

For more JTA stories, go to