About 230,000 Israelis live
in 150 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (news
web sites), land that Israel
captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel
never annexed the areas,
but settlers and their backers say Israel has a strong claim to the
areas for religious and security reasons.
Palestinians claim all
of the West Bank and Gaza, along with the Arab section of Jerusalem, for
a state. They say the settlements are illegal
encroachments on their land, a main obstacle to peace, and must be
The visitors, delegates to the General Assembly of United Jewish
Communities that has brought more than 4,000 Jews to Israel, got a full
briefing of the Israeli side of the issue on their trip, but no
corresponding Palestinian case.
Predictably, after the
four-hour tour of the Etzion bloc of 15 settlements, where about 35,000
Jews live, the visitors expressed support for the settlements.
"I didn't realize how central the Judean hills (the West Bank) are to
Israel and the defense of Jerusalem," said Scott Italiaander, 50,
of Atlanta, as he admired the hilltop view. "This is Jewish land, and
I don't think we should give up
A few hours earlier, a Palestinian
gunman killed two Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint on the main
road linking the settlement bloc to Jerusalem, just eight miles away.
The Etzion bloc, built
on the site of Jewish villages wiped out in the 1948-49 war that
followed creation of the state of Israel, was peaceful
when the visitors arrived.
Shaul Goldstein, head of the regional council and tour guide for the
day, said this was an opportunity to "show the true face" of the
settlements, alleging they have been
portrayed unfairly in the media.
Goldstein flatly rejected Palestinian claims to the land.
"This is our homeland,"
he said. "The Arabs have 22 other countries ... Jordan is the true
The population of Jordan, bordering Israel, is at least half
Palestinian, but since Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1994,
even settlement advocates such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news
web sites) have stopped advocating that Jordan be turned into a
Goldstein also said he does not accept the U.S.-backed
"road map" peace plan that
requires Israel to freeze settlement construction and dismantle all
unauthorized outposts in the West Bank and Gaza erected since
"We're building and building like mad," Goldstein told the visitors.
Sharon's government has endorsed the "road map," including the
settlement freeze, but insists that first, Palestinians must stop all
The United States and other
nations and international bodies agree with the Palestinians that the
settlements are illegal.
UJC president Stephen Hoffman said the visit to the Etzion bloc was
not a political statement.
The visitors watched a short historical movie that portrayed the
first settlers fighting "like warriors" against Arab armies in the 1948
war. The movie described the goal of the
Arabs as throwing Jews out of
their ancient biblical land as they overran the original Etzion bloc.
None of the tours went to Palestinian cities and towns in the West
Bank, a move criticized as an attempt to sanitize Israeli life for the
Writing in the Haaretz daily at the beginning of the convention
Sunday, West Bank reporter Gideon Levy said the participants "won't see
a refugee camp, a city under curfew, a checkpoint or an ambulance that
has been blocked from passing through."
David Simon, 62, of New York City, said he was told by the Israeli
participants that he should not go to Palestinian areas because it was
"not safe." Israeli citizens are banned from entering Palestinian areas,
because several Israelis have been kidnapped and killed there.