HAR BRACHA, West Bank (Reuters) - Being a Jewish settler in occupied territory is the only life Renana Cohen has known for most of her 25 years, and she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, including within Israel’s borders.
It’s not the breathtaking scenery from Har Bracha, or “Blessed Mountain,” a West Bank hilltop settlement of 2,000, that attracts the mother of two, but more the mission of staking a claim to land Israeli rightists see as a biblical birthright.
“This is my place, where my soul feels best,” said Cohen, her hair wrapped in a headscarf typical of those worn by devout Jewish women. “It’s because I believe this is a part of Israel that we must live here, without a doubt.”
Palestinians, facing a recent surge in attacks by settlers out to disrupt their olive harvest, say Jewish settlements, on territory Israel captured in a 1967 Middle East war, rob them of land they want for a state.
Some 300,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, alongside some 3 million Palestinians, in settlements which the World Court has branded as illegal.
Settlement expansion, along with Israel’s insistence on keeping major enclaves in any future peace deal, have impeded U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood and chances of meeting Washington’s target of a framework accord this year.
Settler assaults on Palestinians harvesting olives this month have illustrated the difficulties Israel faces with defiant rightists who insist on staying in the West Bank with or without peace.
Human rights groups and Israeli organizations that monitor military and settler treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank say settlers are rarely prosecuted for violence.
Some unrest has spilled over into Israel where police suspect rightists were behind a recent explosion that injured an Israeli anti-settler professor. There have been no arrests in the weeks that have followed that blast.
“There is unexplainable leniency toward terrorism from our side,” said Ofer Pines-Paz, lawmaker with the left-wing Labour Party. The problem “puts Israeli society at risk of collapse.”
Some settlers are riled by proposals once set forth by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to remove a third of settlements, following on a 2005 pullout of some 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and isolated enclaves in the northern West Bank.
The Gaza pullout dogs many settlers, especially a hardened younger generation that came of age during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000.
Cohen, herself a former Gaza settler dragged from her home by Israeli soldiers, said many at Har Bracha, a settlement overlooking the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city of Nablus, “would spare no efforts to avert any evacuation.”
“They will do everything to prevent it. I cannot even imagine it happening,” Cohen said.
Citing a biblical link, many settlers seek to hold onto areas once inhabited by patriarchs and ancient Israelite kings, and to serve as physical barriers to ever handing land to Palestinians.
“If we don’t live here, then the Arabs would,” Cohen said.
She said she saw a chance for peace only if Palestinians accepted Israeli rule or left.
“If they could evacuate Gush Katif, then they can evacuate them (the Palestinians from the West Bank), too,” Cohen said, using the Hebrew name for the former Gaza settler enclave.
Peretz Levanon, 20, a religious seminary student who hobnobs with militant youths who live in West Bank hilltop outposts built without official Israeli authorization, speaks of “sacrificing your life” to prevent evacuation.
He said he would avoid striking out at Israeli soldiers, but “do whatever is possible” to stop the removal of settlers.
“It should never be allowed to happen,” Levanon said.
Editing by Samia Nakhoul