The Israeli settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron, where 12 Israelis were killed in an ambush last week, is an enclave of a few hundred Jews surrounded by a Palestinian population of about 150,000. In times of war and terrorist activity _ conditions that, tragically, have come to seem perpetual for the people of this region _ the settlement is, literally, indefensible. Even the most vigilant security measures cannot fully protect a small population so badly outnumbered.
The Hebron settlement is adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a 4,000-year-old site of special religious significance for Jews and Muslims alike. However, many other tiny Jewish settlements in the occupied territories _ often little more than a few trailers, generators and security fences _ were inspired by a more modern mix of political and religious fervor. Those who advocate rapid expansion of Jewish settlements used to be an extreme fringe of Israeli politics. Now they have supporters at the center of Israeli government.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said this week that he intends to respond to the Hebron attack by expanding Jewish settlements in the area as a way of boosting security. The expansion would require the forced dislocation of thousands of Palestinians. Sharon is caught in a power struggle with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud Party. With Netanyahu calling for even more drastic measures, including the immediate expulsion of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Sharon apparently feels the need to make new appeals to Likud hardliners. But surely Sharon knows that a rapid expansion of untenable Jewish settlements will make Israelis even less secure, not more so.
For that reason, the settlements are indefensible politically as well as militarily. National surveys consistently have shown that a strong majority of Israelis support a freeze on Jewish settlements and the dismantling of the so-called "outposts" that have proliferated in Palestinian territory. The Bush administration also supports that position. Removing most of the settlements in return for guarantees of a secure peace has been at the heart of Israeli peace overtures to the Palestinians, including the 2000 proposal that was rejected by Arafat at Camp David. Each new settlement established in the meantime has complicated the cause of peace.
It is understandable that the Israeli government would balk at dismantling settlements as a direct reaction to Palestinian violence. Terrorism should never be rewarded, and the murderers of civilian men, women and children deserve no place at a negotiating table. However, most Israelis understand that dismantling the most provocative settlements in the occupied territories would be in their own interests. The outposts, along with the increased military presence they necessitate, are lightning rods for Palestinian terrorists. If he caters to the Israeli extremists pushing for further expansion of the settlements, Sharon will strengthen the Palestinian extremists who are the biggest obstacles to peace.