With Gaza as Their Guide, Some Settlers in West Bank Seek a Way Out

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 11, 2005

KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank -- After working for years in the West Bank for Israel's security services, Benny Raz moved into a two-story home in this leafy Jewish settlement that he could never have afforded without the government's financial help.

"It was like a dream," Raz said of his time in these rocky hills before the Palestinian uprising began, before his concrete company collapsed, before the value of his house fell from $120,000 to a third of that today. Now, after seven years of living along its red-brick sidewalks, he wants nothing more than to leave.

That is proving difficult for Raz and a number of other West Bank settlers who say they cannot raise enough money to move back inside Israel at a time when the government is paying thousands of others to do just that. With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon moving to evacuate all of the settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the West Bank next week, Raz said his community is now a place where only the most ardent religious settlers choose to live.

"If Sharon is knocking on doors . . . in Gaza, in two years he could be knocking on our doors, and I don't want to wait," said Raz, 51. "We are hostages to the state of Israel. The government knows we cannot afford to move."

Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan and the construction of a barrier between Israel and the Palestinian population of the West Bank have had unintended consequences for Jewish settlements like this one. Although not scheduled to be evacuated, a small but growing number of residents here and in several settlements nearby are clamoring to leave the West Bank for more stable lives on the other side of the Green Line, the 1949 armistice boundary separating Israel from the West Bank.

Once completed, Israel's separation barrier will leave an estimated 80,000 settlers on the Palestinian side, including many in the northern West Bank, the region that was once the cradle of the settlement movement. Coupled with the Gaza evacuation scheduled to begin Monday, the barrier's route has convinced many settlers originally drawn here by low-cost government loans and spacious back yards that their days in the occupied territories are numbered.

In recent months, Raz has begun leading a small insurgency within several West Bank settlements, where agreeing with disengagement or expressing a desire to leave are often met with hostility. The group has formed a nonprofit organization called One Home with the goal of securing government compensation similar to the packages being offered to the 9,200 Gaza and West Bank settlers scheduled for evacuation.

As part of the effort, a member of Israel's parliament has drafted a bill that would require the government to buy settlers' homes if a peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians. Settlers who want to leave the West Bank could immediately borrow against their future compensation.

Surveys indicate that thousands of people are eager to leave the West Bank settlements, which many Palestinians and Israelis believe are a prime impediment to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Such numbers do not amount to a mass exodus; an estimated 250,000 settlers live in the West Bank, not including those in East Jerusalem neighborhoods annexed by Israel following the 1967 Middle East war, which also placed the West Bank and Gaza under Israeli control. But even small fractures jeopardize the settlement movement at a time when many Israelis view its members as religious extremists out of step with the rest of the country.

"In every community, there are people who want to leave for all kinds of reasons -- especially if they are going to receive money," said Shaul Goldstein, the deputy chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

A survey of settlers whose communities will be on the Palestinian side of the separation barrier found that 93 percent of respondents remain satisfied with where they live. But the poll of 502 settlers, conducted in June by the Israeli firm Geocartographia, also found that a quarter of respondents would consider moving across the Green Line if paid to do so. The survey was paid for by the One Home movement.

Some are already moving, without compensation. Though not scheduled for evacuation, the 230 people of Hermesh in the northern West Bank have all but abandoned the place in recent weeks.

"The Israeli government bears much of the responsibility for putting them there," said Avshalom Vilan, a legislator from the dovish Meretz Party who said he would introduce a settler-compensation bill after parliament returns from recess in October. "Now the Israeli government has a responsibility to bring them back."

Some of Karnei Shomron's 6,000 people were brought here by religious reasons, while others came for economic ones. Many of them commute each day to jobs on Israel's coastal plain 10 miles west of the settlement's guarded gates.

In 2002, a Palestinian suicide bomber attacked the shopping mall here, killing three children. The roads outside have also been the scene of violence, and property values in settlements throughout the region have plummeted.

Just a few miles south of here is Ariel, a large settlement bloc that Sharon recently declared "will always be an inseparable part of the state of Israel." But it is unclear to the settlers whether Karnei Shomron and other nearby communities will be included on the Israeli side of the barrier, whose route west of here has already been completed. According to the Defense Ministry, an eastward extension of the barrier to include Karnei Shomron on Israel's side would require further cabinet approval.

"I didn't understand this too much when I came here," said Elian Maor, 33, who moved from the Israeli city of Netanya to the settlement of Qedumim, a few miles northeast of here, after her marriage nine years ago. "The only thing I was interested in was a house for my children."

The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Iraq, Maor is the mother of three young children. Her husband, who works for Israel's security services in the West Bank, received a $30,000 government grant and a subsidized mortgage to buy the family home in Qedumim. But increasing Palestinian attacks nearby prompted Maor to close up the house 18 months ago and move her family into a rented apartment in this less isolated settlement. The house is on the market for $35,000, a price so low Maor described it as "ridiculous." Still, no one has made an offer.

"We just want the possibility to get out of here," Maor said. "Those on the left say, 'Why did you go to the settlements to begin with? This is your problem.' But even East Jerusalem is considered a settlement by some. So there must be a compromise."

Georgi Rafael, 51, does not believe in compromises when it comes to the West Bank. Like many settlers, the son of Romanian immigrants says the West Bank was promised to the Jewish people by God.

Rafael, who is a partner in a small law firm here, has raised seven children in Karnei Shomron since arriving 28 years ago. His first grandson, Avi El, was born five months ago and slept soundly in his carriage during a visit to the mall one recent afternoon.

"We will continue here," Rafael said. "But we also know that anything can happen here, that we do not live on the moon. We have to convince people that this is not our own private place, but a part of the country."

But Raz, a large, balding man with a fleshy nose burned brown by years in the desert sun, said his years in the West Bank have convinced him that it belongs to the Palestinians. He said he believes a growing number of settlers agree with him.

"I want people to know that, in the settlements, not all of us think alike," Raz said. "If our law passes, you will see almost everyone leaving here. The only ones remaining will be clinging to the hilltops, guarded by the military."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company