- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2003

SHVUT RACHEL, West Bank — Dror Etkes peers through binoculars and scans rocky West Bank hilltops until a lone cargo container catches his eye. Leaping into his car, the Israeli peace activist speeds to the site and points to the latest Jewish outpost installed in violation of a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Two weeks ago, Israeli police and soldiers began tearing down such outposts in a first step to implement the “road map” to peace, supported by the Bush administration. But for the eight tiny enclaves Mr. Etkes said were removed, he counted nine new ones.

“This is one big show,” Mr. Etkes, of the antisettlement group Peace Now, says of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s evacuation of several outposts in recent days. “The vast majority of outposts simply aren’t being touched.”

Mr. Etkes, 34, has spent the past 18 months painstakingly tracking every sign of new settlement in the West Bank.

A father of two with cropped brown hair, two rings in one ear and a sunburned face, Mr. Etkes is a former soldier. He described the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s as a disturbing experience. After his discharge, he traveled the world for years before returning to Israel, where he became a full-time peace activist.

He straps on a bulletproof vest before setting out on winding dirt roads and perilous highways, where piles of stones and fluttering Israeli flags mark spots where Israelis have been killed in Palestinian ambushes. He monitors dozens of settler Web sites, and makes at least one or two flights a month over the area.

While some settlers welcome him with cups of coffee, he often is received with stony silence and sometimes with outright hostility. He regularly receives threatening phone calls, and in one case his car was stoned.

Asked why he perseveres, Mr. Etkes says, “Pure patriotism.” The future of Israel, he believes, depends on peace with the Arabs and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Like many Israelis, Mr. Etkes wants Israel to disengage from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are home to 3.5 million Arabs. Otherwise, Israel — with 5.5 million Jews and more than 1 million Arab citizens of its own — could become in effect a binational state.

“If Israel wants to take care of Israelis, it must take care of Palestinians as well,” he said.

Some Orthodox Jews believe Israel has a God-given right to the West Bank, which Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, when the Gaza Strip also was taken from Egypt. Both territories, which were never annexed, plus Israel comprised British-ruled Palestine before 1948.

Many Israelis say the West Bank is vital to Israel’s security. It surrounds Jerusalem from three directions and comes close to Israel’s main metropolis of Tel Aviv. About 220,000 Jews live in about 150 settlements in the areas.

Under the U.S. “road map,” a blueprint for the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, Israel must freeze construction in those settlements and remove unauthorized settler outposts set up in the West Bank since March 2001. Palestinians have to dismantle militant groups and end all violence.

The government will not give exact figures on the number of unauthorized outposts. Peace Now — consulted by embassies and the government’s own security forces for information on settlements — has identified 62 new outposts among 103 set up since 1996.

Mr. Sharon has accepted the plan conditionally. But the ex-general is a hawk who has spent decades promoting the settlements, and many observers — like Mr. Etkes — doubt he has changed his position.

Last week, in front of reporters from around the world, soldiers and police got into fistfights with settlers as they dismantled the first inhabited outpost — a collection of tents and makeshift buildings called Mitzpeh Yitzhar.

Critics say the occasional evacuations are a charade aimed at easing pressure on Israel, creating the appearance of compliance with the peace plan and underscoring the opposition such evacuations face.

Settlers quickly establish new outposts nearby.

Near the Maale Michmas settlement, scraps of wood littered a hilltop where bulldozers razed an uninhabited outpost more than a week ago. But on the next hill, a dusty trailer strewn with broken furniture and pieces of paper already heralded the establishment of a new outpost.

“This is how it starts,” Mr. Etkes said after finding the site. “In a few weeks or months from now, we might find several containers with people living in them.”

What does Mr. Etkes make of the settlers?

“I think they are living on borrowed time,” he says.

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