Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Future of Settlements Uncertain as Palestinian Self-Rule Nears, Tension among Israeli Settlers Takes It Toll. Neighbor Is Pitted against Neighbor in Drives to Leave or Stay in the Territories

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Future of Settlements Uncertain as Palestinian Self-Rule Nears, Tension among Israeli Settlers Takes It Toll. Neighbor Is Pitted against Neighbor in Drives to Leave or Stay in the Territories

Article excerpt

TUCKED into a hillside with a spectacular view over the fertile Jordan Valley, this small Jewish settlement has always offered its residents a quiet, comfortable, easygoing lifestyle.

But as Palestinians in the West Bank town of Jericho, 15 miles to the south, prepare for autonomy perhaps as soon as next week, fear and uncertainty about the future are gnawing at the settler community, setting neighbor against neighbor as the tension takes its toll.

In the grocery store, arguments break out among shoppers waiting in the checkout line. Meetings called to discuss the future degenerate into shouting matches. Activists touting petitions and counter-petitions compete for their fellow settlers' signatures.

"People are stressed, their sensitivities are up, and anything sets them off," says Naftali Tapeiro, a factory foreman. "When people are uncertain, anything can ignite them."

The trouble started last week, when Gabi Harel, a Maale Efrayim settler, began circulating a petition to the Knesset (parliament), asking for "dignified evacuation" from the settlement "so that we will not be a weight around the government's neck on its path to peace."

"Dignified evacuation," Mr. Harel explains, means a new home in Israel proper and adequate financial compensation - the exact amount of which remains open to negotiation. He says he signed up 80 of Maale Efrayim's 330 families.

That prompted Mr. Tapeiro, one of the settlement's founders, to launch a rival petition. "We should use our strength to demand that the government offer us real security," he argues. "And if the government wants us to stay, it is going to have to give us what we need to do so." Moderate settlers

Maale Efrayim is not an ideological settlement, peopled by hard-line believers in the sanctity of the Land of Israel. Rather, says Rivka Mishtari, an official with the local council, "we are moderate people who want to go with the government, not against it."

The settlement was founded in 1978 as part of a drive launched by the Labor party to bolster what it called Israel's "security border" along the Jordan River. Like the Israeli pioneers in the Golan Heights in Syria, which was captured after the 1967 Six Day War, settlers in Maale Efrayim have enjoyed universal support for their role in Israel's defense.

But nerves are clearly frayed here now as Palestinians prepare to take over Jericho and the Gaza Strip, ushering in what is supposed to be an interim, five-year period of autonomy before a final settlement for the occupied territories is reached.

The Israeli government has promised the settlers that although it cannot guarantee their future under the final accord, they are safe for the next five years. Few residents of Maale Efrayim, even supporters of the Labor-led government, think that is true.

"The worst thing is the uncertainty," Ms. …

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