ISRAELIS in the West Bank are edgy as Ariel Sharon today begins to run the gauntlet of United States pressure to roll back 35 years of settlement building.
The summit in Aqaba, Jordan, involving the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, President George Bush and the Israeli prime minister Mr Sharon, will be the first major test of whether the international peace blueprint known as the road map ends up in the rubbish bin or being implemented on the ground.
Mr Bush told Arab leaders yesterday that Israel must "deal" with the settlements. If Washington is serious about the plan, their fate is hanging in the balance. The road map calls for a total freeze on building at the Jewish settlements during its first phase, when the Palestinians are required to halt violence and disable militias. One hundred and eleven "outposts" established during Mr Sharon’s tenure without formal government approval are to be dismantled immediately, it says.
Among those worried is Yaacov Golovensky, a 68-year-old immigrant from the Soviet Union who lives in one of the nine prefabricated caravans on rocky Tamar Hill. He has good reason; his home appeared yesterday as number eight on an Israeli newspaper’s list of "illegal" outposts.
"Sharon is a good Jew who wants what’s best for us, but he is going to be under enormous pressure from Mr Bush. Sharon won’t be able to say what he wants: that he hates the Arabs and that he won’t give up a centimetre of the land," he said.
Tamar Hill was established south of Bethlehem about a year ago.
Mr Golovensky, who arrived in Israel 23 years ago, moved there from another West Bank settlement for what he said were ideological reasons.
"This is my land," he declared, after telling of a Ukrainian neighbour who once said that Ukraine was for Ukrainians and not Jews. "I do not want compensation, I want to be here. I waited 2,000 years to be here." He hopes to build a permanent house on Tamar Hill, one that he can bequeath to his grandchildren. But now, he said: "I am very worried about what will happen here."
Palestinians view the settlements as destroying prospects that the West Bank will ever become the heartland of their future state. Without a freeze on settlements, there can be no viable state and there is therefore no point to negotiations, they say.
Mr Bush said yesterday that "Israel must make sure there is a continuous territory that the Palestinians can call home."
At Tamar Hill, it is unclear whether the settlement is about to expand or to wither. Electricity has been hooked up, but there are no phones yet. There is a small synagogue, but it has no torah scroll. Two of the families there, immigrants from Chile and Ecuador who arrived only months ago, do not speak any Hebrew.
As the intifada raged, the establishment of Tamar Hill sent a message from the government that Israel had no intention of relinquishing its claims. But after Mr Sharon used the loaded word "occupation" to describe the Israeli presence in the West Bank, no-one is sure about his intentions.
The Council of Jewish Settlements has called on right-wing parties to leave the government as soon as the road map is implemented.
A top adviser to Mr Sharon said in an interview published yesterday that 17 settlements were earmarked for evacuation as part of a peace agreement. That is a far cry from Palestinian demands, but enough to intensify the suspicions of settler leaders.