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Jewish settlers uneasy following Camp David
BEIT EL, West Bank (Reuters) -- As Jewish settlers of the West Bank go about normal life, there's an air of fear their fate is on the line in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace talks with the Palestinians.
In Beit El, a settlement just north of the Palestinian city Ramallah, an Israeli flag snaps in the sun after the collapse of a summit between Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat forestalled a verdict on their future.
But it is hard to ignore how frayed the edges of the flag had become in the wind, or to ignore the tension mixed with relief among settlers who will remain for now under Israeli rule -- but who still fear the winds of change.
"I don't know what they may have agreed to behind the scenes," said Helen Borer, a 30-year resident of Beit El. "If Barak told me it was raining outside, I'd have to go check."
Barak returned late on Wednesday to Israel, where public opinion of him is sharply divided. Barak's government collapsed on the eve of the Camp David summit, and many settlers and other right-wingers have called for new elections.
Across from Israel's parliament, a group of hunger strikers broke their 16-day fast as soon as Barak returned to Israeli soil. But they said they would go on protesting against possible land concessions that threaten settlements.
Settlers have taken to the streets in near-daily demonstrations against peacemaking and the potential concessions they believe would threaten Israel.
"It was obvious, I think to everybody, that no matter what happened at Camp David, the problems that Israel faces would not be solved," Borer said. "But whatever it is we'll deal with it."
Nearly 200,000 settlers live in 145 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some were drawn by an attractive quality of life and government financial incentives, while some felt a sense of biblical mission.
Palestinians view the illegal settlements built on occupied territory as an obstacle to peace. Some two million Palestinians live in the West Bank, captured by Israel along with Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.
Diplomats and other sources said Barak during the summit considered making a deal to give roughly 40,000 of them a choice of staying under Palestinian sovereignty, with security arrangements, or resettling in Israel while other settlements were annexed to Israel in a land swap with Palestinians.
A grandmother who raised eight children, Borer does not consider herself an extremist. Her parents fled Europe in the 1930s and moved to the United States, where she was raised.
"I came to Israel from New York for a purpose," Borer said. "And that hasn't changed. As a Jew I have a responsibility. I promised myself that I would do what I could so (persecution) would never happen again. The frightening thing is, we're facing the same thing again, 50 years later."
While some settlers deny this fear, it too is in the air.
"I don't know if we're afraid," said Chai Afik, 18, of the nearby Ofra settlement. "But (Palestinians) are always violent and they're going to be more so."
Fifteen-year-old Sara said she wanted to leave Beit El, her home all her life.
"I don't have any reason to feel safe," she said. "We're surrounded by Arab guys and they can just come in here and put a bullet in someone's head. I think I should move to Tel Aviv. It's going to get worse until we're all gone."
Residents who deal with emergencies called a meeting in Beit El on Wednesday, but Borer said their concerns were general, including auto accidents and other civil emergencies, and did not necessarily focus on potential violence.
At the same time, about two dozen Israeli soldiers armed with maps and M-16s fanned out across Beit El in pairs in what appeared to be a training exercise.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said there was no special activity planned in Beit El and that soldiers frequently patrol the settlement.
"Israeli army forces are well-prepared for any possible development in the West Bank and Gaza Strip," the army said in a statement on Wednesday. "As of this hour, the army is not reinforcing its forces in the above-mentioned areas."
But no matter what the consequences, some settlers -- such as the soft-spoken Borer -- insist that they will cope with the consequences of their choices.
"This is a Jewish state," Borer insisted. "It was created because the Jews had no homeland and were, therefore, open to persecution. This is a responsibility we have to those who went before us and those who will come after us. And peace has to include a secure Jewish future."
Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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