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Jewish extremists gearing up for a fight, Israeli officials say

SA-NUR, West Bank—This hamlet of squat bungalows nestled in a valley of verdant fields and Palestinian villages is one of the smallest Jewish settlements that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to dismantle this summer. Israeli authorities fear it also may prove the most dangerous.

Military and police officials say that in recent months radical and armed settlers have flocked to Sa-Nur, a former British base and Russian artists' colony, and to its mountaintop neighbor, Homesh. The two communities are among four northern West Bank settlements, with a total of 500 residents, that Sharon has included in his Gaza withdrawal plan, aimed at establishing more defensible borders for Israel.

While most Israelis support the withdrawal from Palestinian areas, a vocal minority, including some religious conservatives, strongly opposes it. President Bush backs the program.

Unlike the flat and sandy Gaza Strip, which is fenced in and easily sealed off from Israelis, the porous and mountainous West Bank is much harder for Israeli forces to control. Legions of well-armed ultranationalist Jewish settlers from across the West Bank are pledging to join Sa-Nur and Homesh residents in fighting the evacuation, adding to Israeli officials' worries of bloodshed.

"They told me Sa-Nur would be like Masada," Israeli police spokesman Shlomi Sagi said Friday, referring to the fortress where Jewish Zealots killed themselves and their families in A.D. 73 rather than fall to besieging Roman soldiers, bequeathing the word "zealot" to several languages.

Settlers in both communities deny they're bent on violence and charge that Sharon is demonizing them to win public support for evacuating part of the West Bank, an area of religious and national significance to many Israelis. While many settlers here vow to stay as long as they can and to burn their homes to prevent them from being handed over to Palestinians, they say they won't raise weapons against Israeli soldiers.

"The prime minister is surrounding himself with advertisers," complained Sa-Nur resident Yossi Dagan, 24, who has lived here for two and a half years. "Once they sold snacks, once they sold hot dogs and now they are selling us."

Dagan said dozens of people, including right-wing Israeli parliament member Aryeh Eldad and Yeshiva students from the radical southern West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, had moved to Sa-Nur to bolster the settlement's ranks. At least eight other families are on a waiting list, he said. "I tell them just be patient and wait a few months," he added. "Ariel Sharon won't be prime minister anymore and we'll build more houses."

He and other settlers warned that shuttering the northern West Bank settlements will allow militant cells in the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarem to move freely within an area that's two and a half times the size of the Gaza Strip, making it easier for them to attack Israeli towns a few miles away.

In Homesh, settlement council member Benny Shalom, 53, on Thursday pointed out a key Israeli power plant and several Israeli cities visible from the windswept mountaintop settlement that's been his home for nearly a quarter-century. Palestinian rockets could reach those targets easily, he argued.

A secular Jew who embraced the pioneering dream of settling a greater Israel, Shalom said he was furious at Sharon, who was once the settlers' greatest champion and visited Homesh not long after it was established 24 years ago.

Shalom said he'd leave peacefully and was encouraging other residents to do the same. But he hasn't decided whether to burn his home, which could affect the amount of money he receives from the government to compensate him for leaving.

"It's a very difficult question," he said, given that Palestinians killed his brother-in-law during the current uprising.

"To think that the people who murdered him would go live in this house is very difficult. But I also think of the King Solomon story of two mothers who were fighting over a baby. The real mother said don't cut it in half, give it to the other woman. This (settlement) is my baby," Shalom said.

Fellow resident Yedidya Lerner, 25, a religious settler who moved here eight months ago from the West Bank settlement of Qeddumim, is confident that it won't come to that, especially with the help of 10,000-plus settlers planning to come to their aid. But if the soldiers do come, he vowed to stay put with his wife, Shulamit, and their children, Yair, 4 months, and Herut, 2.

"I don't want it to be easy" for the soldiers, Lerner said. "I want to look in the soldier's eyes when he comes in and takes my child. I want to see the soldier come and step on the Sefer Torah in the Shul (the Torah scroll in the synagogue). I want to see them hit my wife. I want to seem them drag my family out."

The army and police are planning measures to defuse tensions, including disarming settlers in the month before the evacuation, making pre-emptive arrests and setting up checkpoints to keep extremists from getting to the four settlements. The area will be declared a closed military zone 45 days beforehand, Sagi said. Only residents who lived there before March 17 will be allowed to enter, he added.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the soldiers and police who are charged with evacuating the settlers to do so unarmed.

"We are preparing for the most difficult situation but are hoping for the easiest," said Sagi, adding that about 10,000 soldiers and policemen will take part in the evacuation.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SETTLEMENTS

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