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West Bank settlers shrug off Obama call

(AFP) / 25 May 2011

KFAR ETZION SETTLEMENT, Palestinian Territories - In the Kfar Etzion settlement, just south of Bethlehem in the West Bank, residents shrug off US calls for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 armistice lines.

To them, Kfar Etzion’s symbolic importance to Israel means it will never be surrendered under a peace deal, despite being located well beyond the border lines that existed before the 1967 Six Day War.

They say that President Barack Obama’s call for those lines to form the basis for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is unrealistic and even dangerous for the Jewish state.

“The state of Israel exists because of the heroes of Kfar Etzion who fell in 1948 and created a indestructible bond between us and the rest of the country,” says Shani Simkovitz, who heads the Gush Etzion Foundation, named for the settlement bloc in which Kfar Etzion lies.

The foundation seeks to develop the entire bloc, which is home to 22 settlements and some 70,000 settlers.

Kfar Etzion was among the bloc’s first settlements, founded before Israel’s declaration of independence, and one of four settlements that made up an early iteration of the Gush Etzion bloc.

It was destroyed by Jordanian troops in the war that followed Israel’s creation, and was not rebuilt until after the 1967 Six Day War in which Israeli troops swept past the lines now being invoked as a basis for peace talks.

After taking control of east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the war, Israel’s government authorised the rebuilding of Kfar Etzion, which went on to become the first Jewish settlement in the West Bank after the war.

For Simkovitz, originally from the United States, Obama simply “doesn’t understand the reality on the ground and the symbolic importance of this region for the state of Israel.”

Not far from her office is the Kfar Etzion kibbutz museum, which features an audiovisual retelling of the history of Gush Etzion.

The museum is currently undergoing a renovation with the assistance of the Israeli government, which contributed 2.5 million shekels.

Shaul Goldstein, president of Gush Etzion’s regional council, is opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state anywhere in the West Bank, and proudly displays a Jordanian map from 1951 that shows Jewish properties in the region.

“The 1967 borders mean nothing to us,” he says in response to Obama, who called for talks on the basis of those lines, but acknowledged a final deal was likely to include territory swaps and would deviate from the old borders.

“There was never a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria,” he says, using the Biblical name for the West Bank, “and our presence here is the very foundation of Zionism.”

Since the beginning of peace talks with the Palestinians, successive Israeli governments have said they plan to annex some settlement blocs to Israel, including Gush Etzion, which is one of the most populated.

“It’s a demographic reality, but we have no more moral or historical rights to Gush Etzion than to the rest of Judea and Samaria,” says Goldstein, who fears annexation would leave the settlement “an enclave in a Palestinian territory.”

“The fact that the Gush Etzion bloc would remain Israeli doesn’t reassure me,” he says, adding that he believes “the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would be suicide for Israel.”

Israel’s Information Minister Yuli Edelstein, a member of the Likud party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a resident of Gush Etzion, says negotiating on the basis of the 1967 lines would be a clear mistake.

“You don’t begin negotiations by giving up your trump card at the very beginning.”

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