- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

PSAGOT, West Bank It wasn't exactly your traditional sandbox, but the children of Psagot, a hilltop Jewish settlement that looks down on the sprawling Palestinian city of Ramallah, were having fun anyway.

On the sandy edge of their settlement, Eitam shoveled and Noam held a sack, while their father pointed across the ravine to areas where Palestinians have been shooting from every night for the past month.

In minutes, the 6-year-old and 7-year-old, toiling alongside a dozen other children, filled another sandbag. By nightfall, when the shooting starts up again, the sandbag will be pushed up against one of the homes for protection from the bullets.

Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank and Gaza Strip are on the front line of the battle Israelis and Palestinians have waged for seven weeks, claiming more than 200 lives.

There were no celebrations yesterday to mark what Palestinians see as their symbolic independence day only more funerals and more violence in which seven more Palestinians died.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who had promised his people independence this year, avoided mention of the anniversary, but other prominent Palestinians said they would not stop fighting until they have a state.

The fighting was a sad contrast to the funeral of Leah Rabin, widow of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Israeli leader was assassinated five years ago by a Jewish extremist who opposed his peace initiatives. Mrs. Rabin died Sunday of cancer.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton the newly elected U.S. senator from New York headed a list of dignitaries and ambassadors at the funeral, but no Arab leaders attended. Mrs. Rabin was a peace activist in her own right, carrying on her husband's drive for an end to the Israel-Arab conflict.

In the settlement, residents say the violence proves they were right in distrusting Palestinians through seven years of peacemaking. They believe it has won them new sympathy from the Israeli mainstream. Critics say the clashes only reinforce the argument that the settlements must be dismantled.

"Yes, we feel vindicated," said Dvir Grunzweig, who has lived in Psagot for four years.

"We said all along that it was only a matter of time until they took the guns they got from Israel and turned them against us," he said, adjusting his skullcap.

Israel has built more than 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza since capturing the areas in the 1967 war. For years, Israeli governments offered low-interest mortgages and tax benefits for anyone willing to move to the settlements.

The incentives helped create a string of bedroom communities just beyond the Green Line the term used here to describe the old border that separated Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. People who moved to these settlements were motivated more by standard-of-living issues than ideology.

But other settlements, built near biblical sites in or near Palestinian cities like Ramallah, Hebron and Nablus, were founded by a cadre of hard-core nationalists. Mostly religious, these settlers chose their locations strategically to make it difficult for Israel to return any part of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians.

When Israeli leader Ehud Barak offered Palestinians a state on more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in talks at Camp David in July, the underlying supposition was that settlements close to Palestinian centers would have to be dismantled.

But the outbreak of violence silenced talk of a peace agreement and of the evacuation of settlers.

"I think the settlers have very astutely avoided the image of extremists in the past month and this has raised their public support in Israel," said Ehud Sprinzak, a political scientist who writes about the ideology of extremist groups.

"The more restrained they are, the more people view them as victims. This definitely lowers the likelihood of their eventual evacuation," he said.

Others, like longtime peace activist Galia Golan, said to the contrary that Israelis have grown tired of peace initiatives being held hostage by 180,000 settlers.

The irony, Miss Golan said, is that Jewish communities in the West Bank and Gaza have continued to grow under governments that have sought peace with the Palestinians, including Mr. Barak's administration.

Peace Now, an Israeli peace group that monitors settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said in a report this week that the government was planning to invest another $300 million next year in infrastructure for settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

"This money is spent on building up settlements, on paving bypass roads, and all along the goal is to get out of there," said Miss Golan. "The bypass roads only help these communities increase their population."

Psagot is a perfect example. Until the bypass road was built four years ago, residents had to drive through the crowded and sometimes hostile heart of Ramallah to get to and from Jerusalem, where many of the settlers work.

In early 1996, under a left-leaning Labor government, Israel built the Ramallah bypass road, a smooth two-lane highway that circumvents not only Ramallah, but all the other Palestinian communities along the way.

Since then, Psagot's population has jumped from 700 to 1,200.

"It's a direct result of the road," Mr. Grunzweig said. "People are a lot more ready to come live in Psagot when they know they can get here from Jerusalem without going through Arab areas. If feels safer."

These days, the feeling of safety might be deceptive.

Earlier this week, an Israeli couple making their way to the Maaleh Levonah settlement on another bypass road north of Ramallah, were shot and wounded by Palestinians traveling in another car.

Psagot has been girding since the clashes started. Armored personnel carriers now line the entrance to the settlement. In the community center, where children congregate after school, soldiers have taken over the bottom floor, draped the windows with camouflage fabric and carved out positions for gunners.

The violence does not shake Mr. Grunzweig's resolve to live in Psagot, though he worries sometimes about the effect it has on his three children. He says his children were startled in the first few days by the shooting, which has assumed a regular schedule beginning after 8 p.m. and tapering off by morning.

"We're already used to it," says Eitam, with all the aplomb of a 7-year-old.

His drawing, taped to one of the doors in the Grunzweig house, shows how versed Eitam is in the weapons of this war. Neatly scrawled in crayon is an automatic rifle, an Uzi and a pistol.

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