“Tell me, please, what am I supposed to do now?” the local Palestinian leader from the Bethlehem area asked the western diplomat. They were watching as a huge bulldozer dugs its teeth into the land of Beit Sahur, paving another road to bypass the Palestinians for the glory of the Israeli occupation. The road is particularly meant for the residents of Nokdim, the settlement that is home to MK Avigdor Lieberman. “What would you do in my place?” asked the Palestinian, a moderate who is far from being a proponent of violence. “Would you watch from the side as the settlers take your land, or would you shoot at the bulldozer?”

Those aren’t the questions that are bothering the Tanzim leadership or the commanders of the Al-Aqsa Brigades. They, like the vast majority of Palestinians in the territories (92 percent according to the most recent poll by Dr. Khalil Shikaki), are in complete agreement about the legitimacy of the violent struggle against the settlers and the army that protects them.

The dilemma nowadays for non-religious Palestinians touches on the efficacy and morality of the suicide bombings inside the state of Israel, proper. There are growing signs that if Israel were to hint that it is ready, with the Palestinians, for a reprise of the Grapes of Wrath understandings, the unwritten agreement that in its day took the Galilee and the villages of south Lebanon out of the armed conflict, it would find the Tanzim and Al Aqsa Brigades willing partners.

But the option of ceasing the intifada inside the occupied territories is considered by Palestinians to be about as realistic as the possibility the Sharon government will cease expropriating land for the purpose of building bypass roads. Even hinting about a general cease-fire, and talk about reforms without any tangible political return, is considered heretical.

Sources in the uppermost echelons of the Palestinian Authority say that’s one of the reasons that Yasser Arafat’s financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid, is delaying his return from overseas. In Ramallah they didn’t like hearing the reports about his discussions in Washington about reforms in the PA.

Another reason, Ramallah sources claim, is that Rashid is believed to have besmirched Preventive Security chief Jibril Rajoub, saying he turned in Fatah men to IDF troops who besieged his headquarters. Minister Hassan Asfour paid with broken hands and legs for a similar charge.

Anyone expecting Palestinians to quit killing settlers, should have a few words with Aziz Amaru, deputy minister for Waqf affairs in Hebron. Amaru has been spending the past several days running back and forth between the downtown wholesale market in the old city of Hebron and the local police station. All he wants is for the Israeli authorities to enforce the law against the settlers who have squatted in the shops of the wholesale market, which is property of the Muslim religious trust.

After Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 Purim day massacre of praying Muslims in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Israel ordered the shops of the wholesale market shuttered; since then, the shops, next to the Avraham Avinu Jewish neighborhood, have been closed. A few months ago, Hebron settlers took over one of the buildings and turned four shops into apartments and a kindergarten. In the past few days they’ve taken over four more shops in an adjacent building.

Amaru says the Waqf complied with the suggestion by the police that they weld the doors of the shops shut. Yesterday morning, settlers used force to chase off the welders and the police who were guarding them, and locked up the Waqf officials on the second floor of the building.

Palestinian Hebronites are asking themselves if the police would have behaved with the same measure of restraint if it had been Palestinians marching into a Jewish-owned shop. The settlers’ behavior, and the equanimity, in the best of cases, of the security forces toward Jewish lawbreakers in the territories, strengthens the hand of those Palestinians who support the armed struggle. Their analysis of the spreading expropriations, closures of land and tree uprootings, is that war against the settlers is a battle for their homes.

Even the muezzin is not allowed to call the people to prayers anymore in Hebron. The soldiers explained to the Waqf that the traditional calls, made from the minarets of Hebron for hundreds of years, “disturb the peace.”

It is becoming ever more reminiscent of the Algerian campaign against the French colonists. Even if someone upstairs decides to stop the suicide bombers on their way to Petah Tikva, there’s no chance that any Palestinian leader will condemn a Hebronite who decides to shoot a settler who invades his home.

A recent petition to the High Court of Justice can illuminate why the Palestinians hate the settlers so much. Jerusalem attorney Shlomo Lecker petitioned the court in the name of two residents of the village of Tu’ana, in south Mt. Hebron. He says that the case is typical of the routine of ruthless land grabbing, under full cover of the army and the government – and of the settlers’ utter disregard for the law.

The story begins in September 2001. A group of settlers began construction of a cement platform on a piece of land bordering farm land owned by Mohammed Mussa Jibrin and Ahmed Mohammed Mohammed. Yosef Adir, a top official in the South Mt. Hebron Regional Council, supervised the construction work.

The landowners hurried to the Kiryat Arba police station to file a complaint against the settlers’ incursion on their land. “After filing their complaint,” writes Lecker in the petition, “one Major Zvika arrived on the scene. He is known to the petitioners as the officer in the civil administration responsible for the area. With him was a civil administration official named Amos. Zvika told the petitioners and their lawyer, Mussa Mahmara, that the construction work was being done without permission. Amos told them he had issued a cease and desist order, but it was impossible to enforce, `because the settlers won’t obey the order.’ He recommended they go to the High Court of Justice.”

Over the next two weeks, under the supervision of Adir, ostensibly a government official as a regional council official, the concrete platform was completed and a water tower was established.

At the end of September, the landowners contacted Lecker, and asked him to come to the site. “Two kilometers away from the hilltop where the outpost is being built, in an isolated, hilly area,” writes Lecker, “I came across a military checkpoint. The checkpoint commander, who identified himself as Major Gilad, showed me an order closing the area, along with a map. On the map, a triangle was drawn around the area the outpost, which was named in the military order as `Avigail Point.’ Major Gilad clarified that the regional commander, who signed the order, wanted it closed to prohibit entry/approach to the outpost area.”

After Lecker protested that settlers were driving by the checkpoint without being stopped by the soldiers, the officer pointed out a sentence in the military order specifying that the order did not cover “authorized” people. Three days later, those “authorized” settlers moved mobile homes to “Avigail Point.”

A statement by the state prosecutor to the High Court in response to the petition, confirms that the Civil Administration’s inspectors did find that two more mobile homes, as well as a shed and an old bus, had been placed at the site. The state says that on February 24, two orders were issued, demanding an end to the construction.

But Lecker produced a document proving that as far as the settlers are concerned, the West Bank is the Wild West, and for the Defense Ministry, which is headed by a man who has said that he doesn’t regard restraining the settlers as very important, the settler behavior in the territories can go on just the way it has.

The document Lecker produced is a letter signed by Major Yossi Shapira, assistant military secretary to the defense minister. It says that a cease and desist order for the construction at the illegal outpost was issued, “and if the settlers do not evacuate the area on their own, the army will evacuate them tomorrow.”

Shapira’s letter is dated October 21, 2001. Apparently it had some influence on a rare High Court’s decision, issued three weeks ago, to order the army to enforce the orders the army already issued regarding “Avigail Point” and to prevent any further construction there. Until, of course, the settlers get their authorizations.

This article ran in Haaretz on May 31, 2002