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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Israeli Settlers Await Crucial Elections

MAALEH MICHMASH, West Bank -- For many Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, Israel's March 28 election is a do-or-die battle for their future.

In what has become the central issue of the campaign, they are fighting a plan by interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the expected winner of the poll, to remove isolated settlements as part of moves to impose Israel's final borders by 2010. Thousands are campaigning feverishly for pro-settler parties to keep land they view as a biblical birthright.

Some analysts say that if the pullout goes ahead, violence could erupt that would make protests over last year's dismantling of settlements in the Gaza Strip seem tame. That was the first Israeli withdrawal from land that Palestinians want for a state.

"These are the most decisive elections for us that Israel has ever held," said Emily Amrusy, spokeswoman for the settlers' Yesha council. "I feel as though I'm on trial and waiting in the dock for the verdict."

A few settlers have joined Olmert's centrist Kadima party to try to minimize the number of settlements he might uproot from land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Otniel Schneller, a former settler leader from Maaleh Michmash, a small enclave near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, is running on Kadima's slate for parliament. His neighbors are so angry that many want him expelled from the red-roofed settlement.

Olmert has promised to set Israel's final borders if a Palestinian government being formed by Hamas does not recognize the Jewish state and disarm. His go-it-alone approach would leave Israel in control of major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

Palestinians view the settlements as a hated symbol of occupation. They have condemned the unilateral plan, saying it will not foster peace and that the retention of major blocs will prevent the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

About 240,000 settlers live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank. The World Court brands all the settlements illegal, a position Israel disputes.

Schneller opposed the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but feels a further pullout in the West Bank is inevitable following decades of conflict with the Palestinians that has eroded Israeli public support for the settlers.

The settlers' best bet now was damage control, he said. "We have lost the people. A large part of the people don't feel they belong to what the settlement movement represents," Schneller said at his hilltop home in Maaleh Michmash, overlooking Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"We have to be a partner in resolving the conflict, to move from being those creating conflict to those who are seeking a solution."

Analysts expect most settlers living in the West Bank enclaves to vote for the rightist Likud party, which is headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or several far-right parties.

Many settlers voted for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the last Israeli election in 2003. Sharon then headed Likud, and was a longtime champion of the settler movement. But following the popularity of his Gaza pullout, Sharon bolted Likud to form Kadima. A few weeks later, on Jan. 4, he suffered a stroke that left him comatose.

"Kadima is like a bull in a China shop whose only aim is to destroy us," spokeswoman Amrusy said.