- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 24, 2002

KARMEI TSUR, West Bank Just two months ago, Mariano Perez, a Peruvian Indian, was living a quiet life as a construction worker on the Pacific coast of his homeland. He had never been to Israel, spoke no Hebrew and until late last year, wasn't considered Jewish.

Today, Mr. Perez wears a yarmulke, has changed his first name to Mordechai and is on the front lines of the Middle East conflict.

Peruvians like him, some of them followers of a Christian sect with Jewish traditions, were formally converted to Judaism by Israeli rabbis in November to qualify for residency under the laws of the Jewish state. About 100 arrived this spring and moved directly into West Bank Jewish settlements, which are pushing hard to increase their numbers while Palestinian militants try to drive them out with persistent shooting attacks.

Mr. Perez lives with his wife, Leah, and their four children on this rocky hilltop settlement. They rarely go beyond the barbed wire surrounding the 100-family outpost as the parents undergo a full-immersion course in Hebrew and the violent realities of the Middle East.

In a nighttime raid on Karmei Tsur last month, attackers fatally shot a pregnant woman, her husband and a soldier only a few hundred yards from the Perez family's whitewashed trailer.

"It's a little bit scary. Anybody would be a little afraid," Mr. Perez, 40, said in Spanish. "But we don't care. We came for one purpose to be closer to God." An Israeli flag and a list of emergency phone numbers hang on the trailer walls.

The fighting in the occupied territories has intensified the long-running feud over the nearly 150 settlements that house about 210,000 Jews among the more than 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian attackers frequently ambush settlers on the roads, and in a more recent campaign, have stormed into isolated settlements in suicidal assaults. Settlers have accounted for 107 of the more than 550 Israeli deaths since fighting broke out in September 2000, according to the Settlers' Council.

The Israeli military has responded with tough restrictions, confining nearly 700,000 Palestinians to their homes during its latest campaign to track down militants.

In contrast, settlers travel freely. They have roads built specifically for them, and every day, more move in.

The settlers, with the help of Jewish groups and the Israeli government, are seeking out newcomers wherever they can find them. Despite violence that has led some settlers to leave, the overall settlement population increased about 5 percent last year.

That is down a couple of percentage points from recent years, but still amounts to an additional 10,000 people.

Settlements range from Maale Adumim, effectively a suburb of Jerusalem with 25,000 people and its own Burger King, to barren desert outposts where settlers have parked two or three trailers on an empty hill in some cases without Israeli government permission.

Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlements, says more than 40 unauthorized outposts sprang up after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came to power last year. Mr. Sharon has been a leading advocate of settlements since Israel began building them on lands captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Mr. Sharon says he won't remove any government-approved settlements at present, and with peace talks collapsed, he faces little domestic pressure to do so. However, 11 of the illegal, makeshift settlements were taken down June 30, and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said more would be removed.

The fate of the settlements is an issue that deeply divides Israeli society and is one of the most difficult questions to resolve in any Middle East peace deal.

President Bush, in a policy speech June 24, demanded that the Palestinians make many fundamental reforms, but he also said settlement-building must stop.

Most new settlers still come from Israel proper, but recruiting efforts have been stepped up in the past year to attract Jews worldwide.

"The settlers are looking for 'lost Jewish tribes' in India, Brazil, Peru, you name it," said Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for Peace Now. "They are looking for people willing to make a religious commitment, and who are seeking to improve their lives as long as they are willing to live in the West Bank."

The majority of immigrants were born Jewish. Mr. Perez, 40, and his wife began practicing Judaism several years ago in their coastal town of Trujillo, but by Israel's standards were not considered Jewish until the rabbis came to Peru and formally converted them on Nov. 23.

Overall figures on immigrant settlers are hard to come by. The largest group is from the former Soviet Union, estimated at more than 13,000, and many come from the United States.

The World Zionist Organization, part of the larger Jewish Agency, began a program last year to boost immigration, and it welcomes and assists those seeking to live in the settlements, said Sallai Meridor, the agency's chairman.

Rows of recently built houses with their distinctive red-tiled roofs stand empty in some settlements in the most volatile areas. But the conflict also has inspired some Jews to immigrate out of solidarity with Israel.

"Some Jews feel this is the time to share their destiny with Israel," said Sarah Weinreb, who heads a recently established recruitment program at Gush Etzion, a large settlement bloc south of Jerusalem that includes Karmei Tsur.

Miss Weinreb has helped bring 120 families to Gush Etzion in the past three months, and she is expecting 50 more. They come from the United States, Britain, South Africa and Canada.

On her recent trip to South Africa, she said, potential immigrants "asked me 5,000 questions. They asked about job prospects and whether they could bring their dog, but they weren't asking about security."

"If they had asked, I would have told them: 'I can't promise anything. We hope for the best,'" she said.

Miss Weinreb says many immigrants prefer the settlements to cities like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem because they are small, close-knit communities with strong support networks.

Arriving in Karmei Tsur, the Peruvian families moved immediately into furnished trailers with food-filled refrigerators. For the first six months, the parents receive language lessons and then get help finding jobs. The children receive extra tutoring at school. The settlement already includes immigrants from Brazil, Argentina, Ethiopia, Britain and Spain.

The incentives support a policy many foreign governments consider illegal because the settlements are on war-won land.

Palestinians see their placement as a strategic effort to dice up the West Bank and foreclose any chance of it becoming a Palestinian state. It galls them to see newcomers from Russia or Peru moving in, while Palestinians dispossessed in the 1948 war that followed Israeli statehood live in refugee camps.

"No settler is welcome on our land," said Ahmed Abdel Rahman, the Palestinian Cabinet secretary. "We have the full right to resist the settlers' existence in our land, because it is a part of the occupation, and an obstacle in the way of a Palestinian state."

Despite an economic downturn in Israel, settlers have largely been spared government spending cuts. Their subsidies include cheap land and mortgages, low-cost schooling and tax breaks.

Some secular settlers say the financial breaks were the main attraction. But most are deeply religious and believe this is their biblical Promised Land. Some say they would use force to resist eviction, even if it was part of a peace deal.

Some see settlements as a way of guaranteeing that Israel won't return to its narrow, vulnerable pre-1967 borders. Others say they are a drain on the military because soldiers must be placed in harm's way to defend them.

Some say settlements are a sacred tenet of Zionism. Others point out that after Israel made peace with Egypt in 1979, it uprooted its settlements in the Sinai Peninsula.

It was Mr. Sharon, then an active army officer, who oversaw the evacuation, had the houses flattened by bulldozers and ordered troops with water cannons to flush out settlers who refused to go.

Until a few weeks ago, Shlomo Mor, 55, a retired army colonel, and his son, Aviad, 23, were the only residents on a mountain between two settlements at the southern tip of the West Bank, with two Israeli army soldiers to guard them.

Now, the younger Mr. Mor's girlfriend and an old school friend have moved in, and his father has brought in a ranch hand to help tend his 100 sheep. The settlement doesn't have a name, but it does have government approval.

"I like being alone in the mountains," said Shlomo Mor. "I like the quiet. I like the night and the stars."

Many Karmei Tsur settlers commute to nearby Jerusalem by day, traveling a road thick with Israeli military checkpoints that guard against attacks.

But in the enclosed world of the settlement, among the cookie-cutter houses and leafy gardens, the atmosphere is relaxed.

On a cloudless summer day, the playground is filled with the sounds of shouting children and barking dogs.

It could be most any suburban community, except for the men with pistols tucked in their waistbands, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders, or both.

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