JERUSALEM — Israel's hardest battle may still lie ahead, and it's not against an Arab foe.
Warnings are growing louder that evicting tens of thousands of Jewish settlers from the West Bank's heartland — a requirement for peace with the Arabs — will be bloody, and perhaps fail.
The defense minister says extremism is spreading among ultranationalists like "a cancerous growth," the intelligence chief warns of a growing readiness to take up arms to resist evacuation, and some settler rabbis are urging religious soldiers to refuse orders.
It's a homegrown problem: For decades, Israel pampered settlers as brave pioneers, and the government continues to shy away from confronting them.
In recent years, the government has failed to dismantle dozens of unauthorized squatter camps, despite promises to the U.S. to do so. And its resolve is now being tested by a few dozen militant settlers holed up in a house in the West Bank city of Hebron, in defiance of a Supreme Court eviction order.
Yet some warn that running from that fight could condemn Israel to rule the Palestinians forever and spell the end of the dream of a state that is both Jewish and democratic. In that case, "people like me will not have a place here," said Ilan Paz, a retired brigadier general who served in the West Bank for a decade.
"If the Israeli government does not take the bull by the horns, it will get worse and worse, and in the end, people will get hurt," Paz added.
Instead of confronting the problem, however, the government continues to approve construction in settlements, even those slated for removal under a plan Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has presented to the Palestinians in the past year of peace talks.
A telling example of this seeming ambivalence is an unauthorized settlement called Migron. Palestinian landowners have asked the Israeli Supreme Court to order its removal. Last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded by asking the court to let it stay for several years while houses are built for its inhabitants in a nearby state-sanctioned settlement.
The offer simultaneously violates two Israeli promises to the Bush administration — to dismantle the unauthorized settlements and stop expanding the authorized ones.
It's hard to explain why Israel would negotiate with the Palestinians while strengthening the very settlements it would one day have to evacuate. Israeli peace activist Dror Etkes believes it's a tactic — to put off the battle until a withdrawal happens, rather than wage it piecemeal.
That withdrawal may not be close, however. Elections are due on Feb. 10 and the front-runner is hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposes major territorial concessions. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are deeply spit between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas militants ruling the Gaza Strip.
Some point out that dire warnings also accompanied Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, yet it was completed in a week against passive resistance and with minimal injuries.
But the West Bank is not Gaza. The settlers see it as the heart of biblical Israel, and believe giving it up would violate God's will. And the 67,000 who would be uprooted under Israel's withdrawal plan — themselves just a quarter of the total number of West Bank settlers — are nine times more numerous than those removed from Gaza.
If previous patterns repeat themselves, the majority will accept compensation and move, but even a few hundred resisters, possibly armed, could present a huge challenge to a society has always viewed fratricidal bloodshed as a threat to its existence.
The extremists are already trying to demonstrate their muscle by slashing tires of police vans, defacing Muslim cemeteries, burning Palestinian fields and threatening military officers. In the last major eviction attempt by the government, in February 2006, hundreds of protesters barricaded themselves at the Amona squatter camp, fighting off riot police with sticks, stones and bricks. Dozens were injured.
On Monday and Tuesday, settlers went on rampages in a Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron and Palestinian villages in several parts of the West Bank. They slashed car tires, smashed windows of cars and homes, defaced a Muslim cemetery and in one village sprayed "Death to Arabs" on a local mosque, the military and witnesses said.
The violence was apparently sparked by rumors that the Israeli military might remove the settlers holed up in the Hebron house. Hundreds of right-wing activists have flocked to Hebron in recent days to try to prevent an eviction.
David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron, said the number of violence-prone extremists is small. Like many settlers, he complained that Israel's government and the courts are oppressing settlers, but said he would not raise his hand against soldiers.
However, the head of the Shin Bet security service warned of hard times ahead.
"The scope of the conflict will be much larger than it is today and than it was during the disengagement" from Gaza, Yuval Diskin was quoted as telling the Cabinet last month. "Our investigation found a very high willingness among this public to use violence — not just stones, but live weapons — in order to prevent or halt a peace process."
A few days later, Barak made his "cancerous growth" remark during a memorial for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 by a nationalist trying to halt a land-for-peace deal. "This evil" threatens Israeli democracy and the military, Barak warned.
Yet military analyst Yagil Levy believes that changing patterns within the Israeli military may render it incapable of taking on the settlers. Religious soldiers and settlers are already disproportionately represented in the military, including in midlevel command positions, Levy said. If an order is given to dismantle settlements, many might heed their rabbis rather than their commanders.
This fear of insubordination is one of the main reasons the army is so reluctant to dismantle even small unauthorized settlements by force, he argued.
Military men like Paz and Yaakov Amidror, a retired general and observant Jew, believe the army will obey the government's orders, provided they come through loud and clear.
Amidror noted that only a few dozen soldiers refused orders in Gaza. At the time, Amidror made the rounds among religious soldiers, urging them to obey, even though he himself vehemently opposed the pullout.
He said he would do the same now, even though he believes a West Bank pullout would expose Israel to more attacks from Arab militants.
A withdrawal would be a "huge mistake," but widespread insubordination would be even worse, he said. Without a functioning army, he said, "we will not survive."
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