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"We have no quiet here," says A., a resident of a settlement in the southern Mount Hebron area. "I'm not talking about military unquiet, but about the new spirit that's beginning to stir within all kinds of people about our future. We have gone through another conceptual shift.

"Once we espoused the opinion that if we could prove that we're a security asset, we'd be able to persuade Israeli governments that the settlements are civilian outposts. But in the Yom Kippur War, many of the settlers found a haven inside Israel. The damage was tremendous. The perception that we are a strategic asset was shattered. Then came the Likud victory of 1977 and we calmed down again. The government was with us. There was a tremendous development momentum, dozens of new settlements [were established] and tens of thousands of new settlers [arrived] ...

"And then came Oslo and with it the fear of abandonment. From the view of us as a security obstacle, as we were seen in the Yom Kippur War, we became an obstacle to peace. Every day we saw maps ... that demarcated the boundary of our legitimacy here.

"Now things have turned around. Who should we rely on now? On [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat. As long as he is engaged in terrorism and isn't willing to enter into negotiations, we're safe. This is an abnormal situation. This is the new phase. We feel - and I can only speak for myself, of course - that we have become a symbol of military prestige and not a vital national or military asset. Today it's impossible to evacuate us, not because we are important to the country or to history - but because otherwise people will say that the government surrendered to terrorism. What does that make us?" asks A.

In its latest issue, the journal of the Yesha Council of settlements, Nekuda, ran a series of opinions under the overall headline, "What's the alternative, then?" The majority of the writers do not offer an alternative, instead quoting familiar, time-worn positions. But under the headline "My comments will outrage many good people among my neighbors," Amiel Unger wrote, "A solution of mutual evacuation should be given consideration. The Arabs will control territories in which there is no Jewish population, and Israel will control territories without an Arab population, and will make it clear that this will be the approach in the future, too, if it is compelled to release additional areas."

Amiel explains the double transfer principle this way: "I am talking about an expanded Allon Plan" - referring to a plan involving a territorial compromise that was submitted to the cabinet by Yigal Allon, a Labor movement leader, in July 1967 - "that will take into account places of supreme religious value to the Jewish people, such as Hebron."

But "our settlement enterprise and the sacrifices that accompany it ... are intended to serve the Jewish people. Therefore, the important point is what serves the Jewish people and not what serves the settlements. If there is a partition, it's preferable that it be one that ensures Jewish continuity without Arab enclaves," he writes.

As an example, Unger cites the "Ouja enclave," just north of Jericho, in the Jordan Rift Valley, which according to Unger disrupts Jewish life in that area. "If, for example, it would be possible to buttress Israeli control over all the roads in the Rift Valley by evacuating that enclave in return for the evacuation of a Jewish settlement, that would be a painful and fair compromise, as the other side ... [will also feel] the pain."

It's doubtful that the majority of the settlers would accept this approach, and certainly it doesn't contain even the beginning of an acceptable political plan. Still, it's possible that we are seeing the development of the correct feeling that the settlement enterprise has become no more than a question of sumud - the Palestinians' word for steadfastness and clinging to the land - of a firm stand against terrorism and of prestige, and that is no longer perceived as the direct continuation of the Bible or of the Zionist enterprise.

Moreover, this feeling has become the subject of a legitimate discourse even among some of the settlers - a discourse that is stirring a dispute about how to proceed from here.

"The residents of Gush Etzion are part of the [national] consensus," Hannah Arnon writes complainingly to Nekuda. "They are immune, they are beautiful and they can guide and teach all the residents of Yesha [Judea, Samaria, Gaza]. Indeed, it was from there that the Meimad movement arose, which then hooked up with the Labor movement and gave it its support in order to bring about the Oslo accords."

Some, then are "inside" and others are "outside." Of course, this argument is of no practical worth as long as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government are in power. Still, the settlers would do well to remember that Sharon, too, agreed that the issue of the "expansion of the settlements" would become a "confidence-building measure" as part of the Mitchell Report, and that from their point of view there is no difference between stopping construction and freezing the settlements altogether.