Sooner or later, the road to peace in the Middle East will have to pass through here.
Gathered on a dust-blown lot in this craggy valley, residents of the Jewish settlement of Shiloh held an impromptu cornerstone ceremony recently, staking their latest claim to biblical lands.
“We know it’s ours,” said David Rubin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., surveying the soft brown slopes of the West Bank from a plastic lawn chair in his backyard. His son, perched on his lap, wore a golden Burger King crown.
“This is the heart of Israel,” he said. “All parts need to be settled and developed.”
Less than a mile down the hill, Palestinian farmer Abdullah Awad pointed to a wide security clearing dug by Shiloh settlers. In the process, he said, bulldozers uprooted his family’s knotted olive grove, along with fig and plum trees.
“It’s like someone is slaughtering us slowly. They want to push us out,” Awad said, as a relative in an embroidered dress picked spearmint sprigs nearby. “This land was inherited from my grandfather and my great-grandfather. We won’t leave it.”
Sorting out the tangled settlement issue is one of the most formidable tasks on the agenda as international mediators begin work on a Middle East peace plan released Wednesday by the Bush administration. Among other things, the proposal calls for creation of a provisional Palestinian state as early as the end of this year and an immediate freeze on settlement expansion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians hope to build their future state.
The plan, known as the “road map,” is geared toward ending 31 months of violence since the latest Palestinian uprising began.
But as Shiloh’s cornerstone ceremony demonstrated, Jewish settlers remain set on growth, and they enjoy a considerable degree of support among Israeli officials. For their part, Palestinians see the settlers as usurpers, and they want the suburban-style housing tracts removed from a landscape of wheat fields and refugee camps.
“Settlements are the primary obstacle to any peace process,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas warned just before winning approval for his Cabinet on Tuesday, which in turn cleared the way for the publication of the U.S.-led peace initiative.
Settlement communities “continue to be the major threat to the creation of a Palestinian state with genuine sovereignty,” Abbas said in his address.
Even before the road map was presented to Palestinian and Israeli leaders, settlement advocates were digging trenches around their position. Members of the pro-settlement Yesha Council met to discuss an alternative plan, dubbed the “canton map,” which would deny Palestinians a right to statehood and keep settlements secure.
“If the road map is implemented, I believe this will lead to the destruction of Israel,” said Yehiel Hazan, a member of parliament from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Likud Party and a leader of the settlement lobby. Hazan said 22 of the 120 Israeli lawmakers supported his view that settlements must be protected.
A Symbolic Gesture
Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of parliament and a Likud member, attended Shiloh’s small but symbolic cornerstone ceremony April 22. The gesture was meant to counter an interview with Sharon, a longtime champion of the settlement movement, in which the prime minister hinted that he was prepared to dismantle some Jewish communities in the West Bank to pave the way for peace.
From his hilltop perch at Shiloh, Rubin dismissed Sharon’s comments. “Some things are meant for international consumption,” he said.
At Shiloh, roughly 200 families live among overgrown gardens and potholed streets. A small general store sells instant coffee and kosher groceries, while girls on bicycles sport long skirts over their jeans in line with Orthodox dictates.
About 200,000 Jewish settlers live in 150 such communities inside the West Bank and Gaza -- land they believe was promised to them by God.
“I cannot believe that in order to achieve peace, I and other people here have to leave our homes,” said Yisrael Medad, another Shiloh settler.
Israeli law allows for “natural growth” inside Jewish settlements, meaning builders can erect homes, shops and swing sets to accommodate the children of families already living there. But critics say the government has turned a blind eye while settlers stake out new, illegal outposts on rocky, isolated hilltops. These bleak outcroppings may be nothing more than a tin shack, and some are even uninhabited, but each marks a new frontier for settlers, and a new affront for Palestinians.
The government also encourages settlement by offering tax breaks and low-interest housing loans to settlement residents, critics charge.
“Every day that passes, more people are going to live in the outposts,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for the Israeli group Peace Now. “Sharon is giving the settlers enough rope to do whatever they like.”
Peace Now estimates that the Israeli government channeled nearly $500 million to settlements last year for infrastructure, education and operating costs. The figure does not include security spending for the communities, which are often ringed by barbed wire and floodlights and patrolled by government troops.
Oppenheimer also said some settlements have erected billboards urging residents to move into trailer homes at tumbledown outposts to lay claim to the land. The cornerstone laid at Shiloh last week did not establish an illegal outpost, but it was unclear whether the construction was necessary to accommodate existing residents.
The government has made quiet, halfhearted efforts to remove some illegal outposts, but residents often move back within days. Peace Now says 61 such outposts remain.
While politicians and activists prepared for the coming negotiations over the road map, Awad sipped tea made with well water in his bare living room. There were no water pipes or electricity cables in his home, he said, because he was not allowed to run them across a settler road about 100 yards down the hill.
Outside and above his house, Shiloh security guards parked a sport utility vehicle and looked on.
“We’re surrounded from both sides,” said Awad, who takes day jobs at construction sites to make ends meet. “Sometimes the settlers throw stones at us. They try to provoke us. They want an excuse to kill us.”
In the nearby Palestinian village of Turmus Ayya, where farmers till their fields with horse-drawn plows, Mariam Hasama leaned on the counter of her family’s grocery store and mulled the prospect of peace negotiations. She said that she had heard about Sharon’s comments in the recent interview but that she was skeptical that settlements would be dismantled.
“I wish to live in peace with them,” Hasama said, “but I don’t believe Shiloh will ever be empty.”
Efrat Shvily in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.