Every few days on a rocky hill outside Hebron, groups of armed Jewish men with skullcaps fight a battle of wills with groups of armed Jewish men wearing uniforms and berets. Settlers climb up a dirt track, vowing to establish a new settlement on a hill outside Hebron, and the army gives chase to evict them. The game will be played out until one side gives up.
Strangely, in a land where every rock seems to have a biblical connection, this battleground is known simply as Hill 26. But to the settlers seeking to colonise these slopes, Hill 26 has already been hallowed by the blood of a Jewish settler, killed here by Palestinians in January, and by the cries of his widow, who was evicted by the army a few weeks later.
If the settlers win the day at Hill 26 they will have succeeded in sabotaging the American-backed road map for peace.
Across the West Bank, settlers have established anything between 60 and 100 outposts in the past two years, sometimes in defiance of their prime minister, Ariel Sharon. Under the terms of the road map, these would be dismantled and the development of the remaining settlements would be frozen. This will prove the single most important test of Sharon's goodwill with regard to a process designed to end the 32-month-old Palestinian uprising, restart negotiations and establish a Palestinian state by 2005.
Back in 1998, Sharon had urged settlers to "grab the hilltops", saying: "Everything that's grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don't grab will be in their hands." Such tactics were used to try to thwart the 1978 Camp David accords with Egypt, and the 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Today, Sharon is prime minister and speaks of being ready to make "painful compromises" for peace, even of dismantling some settlements to make way for a Palestinian state. The hilltop grabbers are turning against him.
The settlers' is a peculiar movement, blending radical religious ideology and the pioneering ethos of the secular kibbutz; Wild West gun culture and civil disobedience; and Ulster-style bigotry with an almost oriental sense of fatalism.
Hill 26 had been settled for years by Netanel Ozeri, a 34- year-old far-right activist, his wife, Livnat, and five children. Seeking to prevent Palestinians from building on it, Ozeri brought his family outside the security of the perimeter fence of Kiryat Arba, a settlement on the eastern edge of Hebron, and moved into a converted shipping container.
Ozeri was involved in repeated court battles with a local Palestinian who claimed to own the land. This was a strictly internal Israeli argument about legality; in international law, all Jewish settlements in the territories captured by Israel in 1967 are illegal.
Ozeri became an inspiration to the "Hilltop Youth" - activists in their twenties and thirties who have taken to the hills. They present themselves as the heirs to the Zionist spirit and the frontiersmen guarding the cushy lifestyles of secular Israelis in Tel Aviv.
Hill 26 made headlines on 17 January. The Ozeri family was eating the Sabbath dinner with two friends when they heard a knock on the door. A suspicious Ozeri opened the door with a cocked pistol, but two Palestinian gunmen immediately shot him dead. Ozeri's friends fired back, killing one of the assailants and wounding the other, who was later killed by the army. The two friends and Ozeri's five-year-old daughter, Herut, were wounded.
Ozeri had recently served four months in prison for his part in a violent rampage against Arabs, during the funeral for a Hebron settler who had been ambushed by Palestinians on a road south of the city. Now it was the turn of Ozeri's fellow settlers to stone Arab houses and set cars ablaze, turning his funeral into a 15-hour riot. The religious authorities sought to bury Ozeri in the Jewish cemetery in the heart of Hebron, but a group of mourners snatched the body and tried to bury it on Hill 26.
When police blocked the mourners, they sped up the road to Jerusalem, where his widow wanted to parade the body in front of the prime minister's office "so that the entire country can see the results of . . . Jews giving rifles to the terrorists".
Livnat and her children decided to stay on Hill 26. But on the night of 24 March, the army moved in and evicted the family. Interviewed later, Livnat said she told the policemen: "I will overcome my personal pain. But what is so painful is the hillul Hashem [desecration of the name of God] that was committed here. Seeing that the Arab houses are still standing, while Jews destroyed houses of Jews - this is an indescribable pain."
The story of Hill 26 encapsulates much of the settlers' world - the creation of "facts on the ground", violent friction with the Arabs among whom they have implanted themselves, a calibrated defiance of government mixed in with demands for protection, and a canny ability to exploit the divisions within any Israeli government.
Their tactics have been devastatingly effective. The settlements have expanded relentlessly, regardless of which party was in power and regardless of the peace talks. With 200,000 Jews now living on the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem, every day that passes makes it more difficult to unscramble the land.
Israel's victory in 1967, which created a new breed of Palestinian militancy, also unleashed a new strain of Jewish religious radicalism. Hebron, the "City of the Patriarchs" and once home to a pious Jewish community, until Arab rioters killed more than 60 Jews in 1929, was the first target of the settler move- ment. A group led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger booked the Park Hotel for a Passover meal in 1968, and since then the Jews have never left.
The government built Kiryat Arba, a large settlement on the eastern edge of the Arab city of Hebron, where some 800 Jews now live in hatred with 100,000 Palestinians. The settlers carved out a permanent presence in the Ibrahimi Mosque - the reputed burial spot of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives.
The Palestinian intifada has highlighted the blatant inequality between Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories. Jews drive along protected roads bypassing Arab towns, while Palestinians are penned in by rings of military checkpoints; settlements are subsidised by the state, while Palestinian economic life is strangled by security measures; settlers live under the liberties of Israeli law, but Palestinians are subject to military rule.
Most settlers live in comfortable suburbs strung out on the western fringe of the West Bank, along the frontier with Israel. To the east, in the Jordan valley, a chain of kibbutzim acts as a defensive line on the border. In the central band, the settlements along the mountain ridge of the West Bank from Hebron to Nablus are the heartland of Zionist and religious radicals. These communities, often no larger than a few hundred people, seek to encircle and penetrate Palestinian towns.
Life in Hebron is a family enterprise. There is something surreal about the sight of an Orthodox woman wandering dreamily through the centre of the city, pushing her children in a pram, oblivious to the danger of snipers or bombers. Where the settler women go, the Israeli state is sure to follow. Jewish families and children require housing, schools, clinics and the protection of the army.
Settlers like to say their tactics of creating "facts on the ground" are little different from the methods used by the venerated figures of Zionism under British rule. But beyond this civil disobedience lies a more violent strain.
In 1982, settlers tried to stop the peace treaty with Egypt by gathering in Yamit and fighting off soldiers trying to evict them. Some threatened collective suicide. Throughout the early 1980s, a group of settlers known as the Jewish Underground responded to Palestinian attacks by blowing up the cars of Palestinian mayors, opening fire on Palestinian students in Hebron and plotting to blow up Arab buses.
After the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993, extremists on both sides again conspired to destroy the hope of peace. In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born doctor in Kiryat Arba, entered the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire on Muslims performing Ramadan prayers, killing 29 people before being beaten to death. As soon as the 40-day Muslim period of mourning ended, Hamas carried out the first of its suicide bombings against civilians in Israel, killing seven Israelis and an Arab when a car exploded alongside an Israeli bus in the town of Afula. On 4 November 1995, Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist closely associated with some of the Hebron settlers, shot and killed Yitzhak Rabin: the Israeli prime minister, he claimed, was endangering the lives of Jews.
Nearly a decade after the Oslo accords, the United States and the other members of the quartet - the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - are trying to reassemble the process of peace from amid the wreckage of the Palestinian uprising. Should Ariel Sharon make any move towards creating a Palestinian state, he is likely to face violent opposition from a settler movement that once considered him to be their godfather.
Around Hill 26, Ozeri's friends are unlikely to sit back. As in Rabin's time, the word "betrayal" is again being muttered over Sabbath meals.
Anton La Guardia is the diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph and author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians, published by John Murray (£9.99)