(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Even the inhospitable grey weather could not convince settlers living in the southern part of the Hebron Hills to take up Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz's offer Sunday to accept compensation and move within the Green Line.
"Even on a rainy, cold day like this... when we could be visiting a movie theater or mall in a larger town, I would not want to leave my home," said Shosh Hadera, a resident of the Shim'a settlement where Peretz held an open meeting. "What could he offer me?" she asked.
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That question - what could Peretz place on the table - appeared at the heart of the issue for the two dozen settlers who gathered to hear Peretz speak.
Labor MK Colette Avital accompanied Peretz Sunday. Avital organized the visit as part of her work with One Home, a group made up of politicians who work toward the withdrawal of settlers from the West Bank.
"It is better to spend twice as much on reparations as the government currently budgets [under the law], and avoid confrontations," said Peretz as he discussed the Evacuation Compensation Law. "The time has come to treat settlers as human beings. We will speak to you as equals, we have no interest in bringing you down to your knees... as other governments have," he said. "With other governments, you would find yourselves on your knees, having lost everything, without anyone to speak with," said Peretz.
As Peretz entered the small, secular community, residents reassured their children that the Labor leader had not come to evacuate them from their homes. The children seemed convinced, and several ran to hug and kiss the genial candidate. Their parents asked each another how big a check the Labor Party was likely to offer them.
"Here's the truth - ask most people here whether they would leave, and they'll ask you how big a check you'll give," said Amna Cohen, who has lived in Shim'a for nearly 14 years. Cohen works in Beersheba, as do most of the 75 families who live in the community. The construction of the separation fence
, whose route
will cut the community off from the rest of Israel, directly threatens her livelihood.
"We love our community, but we are also thinking of our future," said Cohen.
Peretz promised he would pass a law guaranteeing a basic compensation package for settlers and make every effort to expedite a peaceful evacuation, no matter the cost.
"I want to make partners of the settlers, I want to see cooperation," said Peretz. "If the disengagement from Gush Katif cost NIS 8 billion, we will need tens of billions to leave the West Bank, and we will need to do it in a better way."
Peretz said that if he were to head the next government, he would make a priority of relocating communities as cohesive groups.
"It was your party's spirit that founded the settler movement," accused Hadera. "You are talking about this as if it was in the past and the decision has been made that we would leave. I don't want to leave, she said.
"The new spirit of my party is one of peace," responded Peretz. "The spirit of the settler movement and the spirit of peace are not on the same path. It is the spirit of peace that will direct our future, he said.
"It looks like we will have to leave here, one way or another," said a resident who would only give his name as Sami. "Everyone is talking about additional evacuations, but Amir [Peretz] came and talked to our face - he seems honest, and he is talking about money, which is talk that makes sense to us."
Several residents were quick to point out that their settlement was an anomaly in the West Bank and that Peretz would have received an entirely different reception had he visited a more religious community.
The Hebron Hills Regional Council protested Peretz's visit, issuing a written statement calling it an "attempt to weaken those who have settled this land."
"The Hebron Hills region is in a minority when its residents oppose the idea of selling our birthright for a pot of lentils and refuse to collaborate with Peretz and his people," read the statement.
A spokesman for Peretz said the Labor chairman would continue to visit settlements in the area. Avital said she would soon set up a Labor Party branch in Karnei Shomron in Samaria, where settlers have made inquiries regarding the Evacuation Compensation Law.