Jewish Settlers Shed No Tears for Father of Their Movement

Times Staff Writer

The stony hills of the West Bank are dotted and crossed with Jewish settlements, asphalt roads connecting them and billboards advertising real estate deals: "A quarter-acre and a house for under $90,000!"

This is the land that Ariel Sharon claimed for Israel. As father of the settler movement, he encouraged tens of thousands of Jews to move into the remote hilltop outposts and well-manicured towns that the government built for them. Sharon saw the settlements as vital to the security of the Jewish state.

Yet many settlers believe the prime minister betrayed their cause when he pulled 8,500 Israelis from the Gaza Strip last year after a 38-year occupation, and today they watch his failing health with a mixture of anticipation and, in a few cases, glee.

These settlers, their considerable influence abruptly diminished under Sharon, now sense a new opening. If the prime minister's program of ceding chunks of territory to the Palestinians stalls, as is a real possibility, they see a brighter future for their hold on land they consider to be a biblical birthright.

"The jarring fact is that he was hit from above," said Avraham Hertzlick, a Brooklyn-born shepherd who has lived in Tapuah, a remote settlement about 20 miles north of Jerusalem, for seven years. "He caused such tremendous pain to thousands of Jews, pain beyond measure.... Without a doubt, this was God's punishment."

Sharon's decision to abandon Gaza was a bow to demographic realities, a historic compromise acknowledging that the dream of a Greater Israel was unrealistic. In leaving Gaza, he turned his back on part of his core support, the right-wing settlers movement, while giving new life to Israel's political center.

As Sharon withdrew from Gaza, however, his government continued rapid construction in the West Bank, planned thousands of new housing units in settlements and proceeded with the building of a 450-mile concrete-and-metal wall in and around the West Bank to divide Palestinians and Israelis.

Taken together, the projects have allowed Israel to consolidate its grip on Jerusalem, a city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital. In the Palestinian view, the moves also have in effect dictated the borders and configuration of a weakened Palestinian state that Sharon envisioned but that the Palestinians are loath to accept.

"What is Sharon's legacy? Is it the outposts he built, or the outposts he evacuated?" asked leading Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea. "Once he was considered the despot ravenous for territories. Now he is considered a courageous pragmatist."

It is not clear what steps Sharon planned next. The platform of the new political party that he formed, Kadima, states that "parts of the Land of Israel" would have to "be relinquished" to ensure a sovereign, Jewish and democratic state.

In broad strokes, Sharon spoke of a partial withdrawal from the West Bank, but at the same time he favored annexing four large settlement blocks and parts of East Jerusalem. He has never specified how much land he would cede or where, although the path of the wall offers the best hints: As planned, it leaves about 50,000 settlers on the Palestinian side who presumably would have to move.

All told, nearly a quarter of a million Israelis live in about 120 settlements scattered over the length and breadth of the West Bank, according to watchdog organizations that monitor the phenomenon, and small hilltop "outposts" pop up regularly. The West Bank also is home to 3.2 million Palestinians.

"I think he would have carried out small movements in the West Bank but not an extensive withdrawal," said Tamar Hermann, a political analyst at Tel Aviv University. "He was not about to return to the 1967 borders" that existed before Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "He would have pulled out of some of the small, isolated settlements that are already out of the public conscience, the same way Gaza was. Gaza was a liability years before he acted there."

Whatever Sharon's plans may have been, the prospects for a West Bank withdrawal now seem dimmer. The prime minister remained critically ill Saturday evening in a Jerusalem hospital, and aides say that even if he survives, he is not expected to return to office. No other politician in the running to replace him is considered sufficiently formidable to execute a settlement evacuation, frequently called "disengagement."

For West Bank settlers, any further pullback, however small, would be seen as another betrayal, and many believe they've gotten a reprieve with the all-but-certain departure of Sharon from Israeli politics.

In Tapuah, home to a number of especially radical religious settlers, a few people cracked open a bottle of wine to celebrate Sharon's illness, and some planned to hand out celebratory candy if he died, settler Hertzlick said.

Hertzlick, a wisp of a man with a gray beard and green knit cap pulled tightly around his ears, lost his daughter to Palestinian violence. He noted that Sharon suffered a massive stroke on the day that the settlers were marking the fifth anniversary of the day she and her husband, the son of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, were slain by gunmen.

"Sharon was a hero of Israel. People used to name their children after him," Hertzlick, 65, said as he tended goats corralled in a corrugated-metal barn and his donkey brayed plaintively. "But he lost his way. He lost his values. He betrayed his faith."

Tapuah is a hilly settlement with small, neat homes, red-tile roofs and scads of young children playing on the streets. Some of the men brandish guns, and visitors are eyed warily.

Sharon "will have no rewards waiting for him in the world to come," said David Haivri, 38, a father of seven whose campaign to have Palestinians expelled from the West Bank has gotten him into a few scrapes with the law. He faces a four-month jail sentence for printing T-shirts with the slogan, "No Arabs, No Terrorism."

"Sharon built these homes here," he said. "He wanted the grass-roots support and knew the people of this land would support him. And when he was finished with them, he forgot their names."

David Michael Rosenberg, 20, who moved to Tapuah from Oakland nearly three years ago, said he also would be glad to see Sharon go.

"We should remember the good he did, but Sharon today is a very dangerous leader," he said. "No one is as powerful as Sharon. He was the only one who could do the things he did to us.... Now we know there won't be another disengagement."

Rosenberg was walking up a hill into Tapuah after returning from yeshiva studies in Jerusalem. The junction near the settlement has grown in just the last month from a simple intersection to six lanes of asphalt with six Israeli army guard booths and new speed bumps.

Mainstream settler leaders insist that their radical counterparts who are celebrating Sharon's crisis are in the minority. Most settlers, they say, can separate their bitter political disagreement with the fallen prime minister from the compassion they feel for the human being, a fellow Jew.

"On a personal level, we are praying for his health and recovery," said Ruth Lieberman, 38, of the Gush Etzion settlement block south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem. "We would like him to recover and live out a long life at his ranch, and not at the helm of the prime minister's office."

For a generation, the settlers enjoyed clout and leverage far beyond their numbers. Prime ministers on both the left and right often had to bow to their demands. To lose their status under Sharon, their erstwhile patron, was the bitterest of ironies.

For the immediate future, they probably will remain relegated to a secondary role, analysts say. A large centrist faction of Israelis has stepped forward to challenge the policies that favored the settlers; polls show substantial support for both the Gaza pullout and similar action in the West Bank.

With the Palestinians awash in fresh political turmoil and lawlessness, however, Israel might face another wave of suicide bombings, deepening fear -- a circumstance that could cause the centrists to retrench and give an opening to hard-liners.

"The settlers have been considerably marginalized and de-legitimized," Hermann of Tel Aviv University said. "But it is too early to bury them."

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