The Nesimi family of Ma'aleh Ephraim, on the border of the Jordan Valley and the Samarian Hills, should be celebrating the arrival of a new child but, instead, the atmosphere in their modest house is one of melancholy. "It's like we're living in a cage," says the grandmother, Shuli, bringing a tray laden with tea, biscuits and dates for the only guests the household has received for some time.
The two-month-old baby boy makes the third generation of the family living in their home, and the second to be born and raised there.
Shuli's youngest son is in the army and the eldest lives 40 km. away in Jerusalem. His car sits in their driveway after it was stoned by Arabs nearby. "They don't come here much anymore," says Shuli, who stopped traveling since she finished working as a guide for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "Nobody comes to visit us, everyone is scared to come here."
Her husband, Yonatan, shares her grim mood. "We're dead people, like the living dead," he says.
The family hopes the new arrival will be the last to grow up in their community. "I would like to raise my children here, with the help of God, but the problem is that the reality just doesn't allow it," explains the new mother, Revital, who believes that 80 percent of her neighbors would move if given the choice. "We want to leave, we just don't have the ability to do so."
Fear of terror attacks and deteriorating economic circumstances are the main triggers driving the Nesimis out of the place they have called home for over two decades. Originally from Ashdod, in 1986 the Nesimis swapped the sand of the Mediterranean beach for that of the desert. And it's not hard to see why. "Look what a beautiful view we have here!" beams their son-in-law Izzy, stretching his arm toward the breathtaking landscape surrounding the house. Taking in the scenery from the balcony, it's hard to disagree. Located on the outermost street of the settlement, their house is separated from the lunar topography of the desert only by the multicolored plastic slides in the adjacent children's playground, the last outpost before the metal fence surrounding the community. No more than a few meters from the Nesimis' doorstep, the desert sands begin, stretching all the way to Jordan.
Like thousands of other Israelis, the Nesimis were lured to the West Bank by the promise of a high quality of life, the chance to own the type of home they couldn't dream of in the crowded center of the country and the opportunity to become latter-day pioneers. Ma'aleh Ephraim sits on the edge of the eastern Samarian slopes, where the green hills abruptly transform into the golden sand of Mount Sartaba, a literal realization of the Zionist ideal of "making the desert bloom."
"The conditions were very good for us and for the children, too, so we came here. The atmosphere was warm, it was great for the children and the schools were on another level," Yonatan remembers fondly.
But now the family, and many others like them, is itching to leave their home after their dream turned sour.
SINCE 1967, more than 250,000 Israelis have made their home in the West Bank, possibly the most hotly-contested real estate on earth. The kidney-shaped territory that Israel captured from Jordan in the Six Day War is saturated with Jewish religious and historical significance and remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many settlers pledge to fight tooth and nail before being parted from the land.
Breaking the stereotype of the radical settler are an increasingly vocal number of families in certain communities who want to leave voluntarily, driven by motives ranging from personal security to wholesale political U-turns. Bound together in wanting out of the West Bank, they are campaigning for government assistance to enable them to move out of their homes, which in some settlements have plummeted in value. But their potential lifeline, a law compensating those who voluntarily evacuate, is now facing an uncertain fate, with a new right-wing government and the most liberal US administration Washington has seen for years.
Founded in 1978, predominantly secular Ma'aleh Ephraim now has a population of around 1,400 and forms the urban center for nearby Jordan Valley moshavim such as Masua, Petzael and Argaman, which are home to fewer than 200 people each. Although the view from Ma'aleh Ephraim has remained relatively unspoiled over the last three decades, the attitudes of some of its residents have undergone a transformation. According to the Nesimis, around 80 percent of the settlement's founders have left in the last few years and Revital is confident that a similar proportion of the current population would leave if they had the means to do so.
"Believe me, at the beginning it was amazing here, but recently it feels like a prison," says Shuli, who was forced to hold her new grandson's brit mila in Yavne, not far from their former home in Ashdod. "No one would come, everyone was scared, so I took responsibility and arranged it outside."
Problems began during the second intifada and traveling on the roads has become dangerous - stone-throwing, shootings and firebombs - ever since. "We would go anywhere we wanted and come home at 3 a.m., we didn't have any problems. Until then it was a good life," says Yonatan, who escaped an ambush by Palestinian terrorists near Ariel in 2000. "It didn't come suddenly. There were some events that happened and after a few, you think that it probably won't happen to you. But when it happens again and again, maybe at some stage it will catch up with you."
"When it starts to get dark, we don't go out of the house," says Izzy, whose words suddenly take on a more tangible meaning as rain clouds rapidly threaten to obscure what is left of the day's sunlight, forcing us to cut short the interview. On the way out, a set of lonely blue-and-white plastic banners hung from the porch rustle in the desert wind, bearing the plea, "Don't leave Israelis outside the fence."
In Karnei Shomron, on the opposite side of the Samarian Hills, the same posters arouse a more raucous reaction. Resident Beni Raz hangs them up at least twice a week by the settlement's local checkpoint, before they are promptly torn down by irate neighbors. Raz moved to Karnei Shomron in 1992, but rose to notoriety when, a few months before disengagement, he helped found the Bayit Ehad movement, which represents settlers who want to leave.
"People don't like me here. They say I'm an Arab, a fascist, a traitor," says Raz, a thickset 55-year-old whose verbal presence is as intense as his physical. "I put them up on Election Day; when a council worker came and took them down, I asked him why he doesn't take down the [Avigdor] Lieberman posters too?" The man's reply was to the point: "I won't kill you here, I'll kill you somewhere else."
DESPITE THE hostility, which has included losing his job and social rejection for him and his family, Raz is adamant to continue his campaign, including the seemingly futile task of hanging Bayit Ehad posters. "I do it simply to remind people, don't leave Israelis on the other side of the fence," says Raz, who has resorted to putting them up on Fridays so they at least stay up until the end of Shabbat. "I'm not scared, I know that I'm their problem."
Raz began his activities after the construction of the security fence which leaves 73 settlements, and tens of thousands of Israelis, on the "other" side. He and others believe that the fence, initially conceived as a means of preventing terrorism, is becoming a de-facto political border. "No one forced me to move here, but they never told me that I was going to be on the other side of the border," he says.
Unlike Ma'aleh Ephraim, which suffers from both geographic and economic isolation, Karnei Shomron's 6,300 residents live just 10 km. from the Green Line and within easy reach of Kfar Saba, Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv. Karnei Shomron is comprised of a number of satellite neighborhoods spread over ridges: Karnei Shomron itself, Neveh Menahem, Neveh Aliza and Beni Raz's community, Ginot Shomron. When he first arrived, Raz was an enthusiastic Moledet voter. Now, he and his 25-year-old son Roi are probably the only people in Karnei Shomron who voted for Meretz in February's elections.
His motives for leaving are explicitly political: "We have to make peace with the Palestinians and to do that we have to leave. I understand that our place isn't here."
Raz and others want their homes in the West Bank to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in the framework of a peace agreement, but aren't prepared to rely on a peace process which has yielded meager results in the last 15 years. "We're already living in two states, the State of Israel and a dictatorial state in the territories," he says.
Izzy echoes a similar view: "I feel like I'm in the state of Palestine when I travel to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. It's not nice for me to say that."
"You won't find a place like this in Tel Aviv or Kfar Saba," Raz says proudly of his seven-room house, which originally cost him $130,000.
"It's the greatest place on Earth. I live on top of a mountain and see goats each day," says Roi Raz. "But I want to leave because it could be the solution to this conflict; it's a bone stuck in our throats."
Their backyard boasts a stunning view of rolling green hills, occasionally interrupted by the random arrangement of houses in the nearby Palestinian village on the other side of the wadi, contrasting with the rectangular architecture of Emmanuel and Nofim further along the horizon. But the carrot that lured Raz and others to the West Bank has now become the stick keeping them there against their will: economics. Raz says that following the second intifada the value of his property slumped to less than half of its original price.
Yonatan is in a similar predicament, estimating that his house is worth a third of the $30,000 he paid for it. "If I sell this house, I couldn't buy a room with the money," he says. "If I rent my house, I'll get NIS 700 a month at the most, and it would cost me NIS 3,000 in the city. I'll need three incomes, one to pay the rent, one to pay the bills and another for living expenses."
In the last Knesset, Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan and Labor's Colette Avital drafted the evacuation-compensation bill, which proposes buying the homes of settlers living east of the fence who are willing to leave voluntarily and help them resettle elsewhere. During its first official cabinet discussion in September, Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon said that the law would cost an estimated NIS 2.5 billion, offering NIS 1.1 million to each family, as well as additional 15% or 25% compensation to those who agree to move to Galilee or the Negev.
"The State of Israel helped me to move here, and now I want it to help me to leave," argues Raz, who once worked for the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). Three years ago he was fired as a driver for the local council, which he attributes to his new-found activism, and now works part time for a security firm in Tel Aviv, taking home a fraction of the salary.
Nevertheless, he is determined to continue his mission. "I know it will be hard, like being a child again, finding a new job and friends. It will take a few years and be done in stages, but the infrastructure needs to be built now. We need to build new houses and workplaces so it won't be like Gush Katif where the people had no jobs and nowhere to go."
The Nesimis would like to move to Yavne, Ashdod or Rehovot, "not expensive places," while Raz, who previously lived in Kfar Saba and Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'acov near the Kinneret, would like to move back to the Galilee or to the Negev to "strengthen the Jewish presence" there.
SETTLERS WILLING to speak out say they are doing so on behalf of the silent majority who are afraid of becoming pariahs in their communities. Raz says that he has a computer database with names of around 10,000 settlers who registered support via e-mail for voluntary evacuation and believes that this is a drop in the ocean. Showing off the view of the nearby Wadi Kana, Raz calls over to a middle-aged religious man walking on the other side of the street. "Do you want to leave?" His reply is affirmative, but he refuses to stop and hurries past instead.
Roi Raz admits that he has differences of opinion with his father, "But our dialogue can't happen outside, people don't want you to criticize the settlement."
On its limited budget, Bayit Ehad launched a number of campaigns to gauge support and rally awareness, including holding public meetings in settlements and mailing imitation Palestinian passports to settlers, suggesting the fate which may eventually befall them if they remain in their homes. Roi recounts the evening in 2007 when they held a meeting at the home of a family who want to leave Shavei Shomron, a "radical, religious place." They soon found the building surrounded by around 200 people, including children, with loudspeakers calling them "traitors" who attempted to overturn their cars until the police secured their safe exit.
"It was the first time I was exposed to such hatred and for what? Just for thinking differently."
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, dismisses Bayit Ehad as "marginal" and "politically motivated." Speaking from his home in Ma'aleh Shomron, Dayan acknowledges that some communities are "not successful," but claims that they are a "handful" among the 121 official settlements.
Public opinion surveys have yielded a range of results, including a November 2005 TNS survey commissioned by Bayit Ehad which found that 25% of settlers would leave immediately if they were offered comparable housing within the Green Line, and that 35% of settlers and 74% of the general public supports the evacuation-compensation bill. A survey presented by Ramon at September's cabinet meeting found that 11,000 (18%) of 60,000 settlers east of the fence would be prepared to accept compensation.
Dayan says that the security situation for settlers has "never been so good," including zero casualties in 2008. Nevertheless, two policemen, one of them from Ma'aleh Ephraim, lost their lives on March 15 after they came under Palestinian gunfire at nearby Masua. Two months earlier, settlers driving near Kochav Hashahar had a narrow escape in another shooting attack which left the driver with serious head wounds.
But in Ma'aleh Ephraim, making a living is just as urgent as security. "There was an industrial zone, but since 2002 the hangars are empty. It's impossible to bring people there and foreign companies won't come because of the boycott [on West Bank products]," says Izzy.
But Daniel Bitton, chairman of the Ma'aleh Ephraim Local Council, remains upbeat about his settlement's future and says that four new factories, including agricultural processing and fireworks, are set to open this year. "In short, there is work for people if they want to work," he says, speaking in his sunny office decorated with Israeli flags and portraits of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin.
Bitton hopes that 20 new housing units will get the go-ahead in the next six months, units designated for the children of existing residents. "Anyone who wants to leave can go, it's his right," he says.
"It's only natural that some percentage of the population isn't happy or satisfied with the place they are living and want to relocate," says Dayan. "It happens all over Israel, in Galilee and the Negev, too. It's nothing to do with security or the quality of life after the erection of the security fence. The fact is that in 95% of the communities in Judea and Samaria there is no problem, the price of houses is high and has risen 20% to 25% in the last few years due to the government policy of freezing construction. Not only is there no problem to sell at a good price, but in most communities there is a waiting list [to move in]."
ONE SUCH community is Kochav Hashahar, a religious settlement of 300 families located 30 minutes' drive north of Jerusalem. The settlement Web site states that "Current plans call for expansion to at least 550 families."
Anna, who moved to Israel from Pennsylvania eight years ago and has lived there for two years, meets us at the entrance. She is determined to raise her family in the West Bank. "I have no problem with other people being here. I don't want a country with 100% Jews and no Arabs," she says. "Kochav Hashahar is one of the places which has something to teach to the world in terms of what creates a community; there's a tremendous amount of mutual concern and help here. I find it ironic that this is what the West wants to eject, like the cancer of the Middle East."
"Traditional Torah Judaism talks about settling Eretz Yisrael, it's a mitzva," says Anna, whose religious faith is matched by a belief that her community's presence contributes to Israel's security. "There is definitely a lifestyle factor too. Look at my house, do you think I could afford this in Jerusalem? Everything is here for the children, it's like a village."
Anna, who commutes to work in Jerusalem twice a week, says that she understands why people in places like Ma'aleh Ephraim, which she calls the "Dimona of the Jordan Valley," want to leave, but her sympathy stops there. "It's a depressed place. They live in the middle of nowhere and job prospects are poor, but the government shouldn't pay them. Why not Dimona, Yeroham, Sderot or other development towns too?"
Dayan agrees, "There's no reason that the government should help people who made a bad real-estate deal." But there are Israelis living in cozy commuter settlements who are also looking for a way out. Ten minutes closer to Jerusalem than Kochav Hashahar, Rimonim is a textbook bedroom community of 600 souls where residents enjoy spacious villas, two kindergartens, a half-Olympic size swimming pool, not to mention its most unmistakable feature: silence. David Avidan drives to Jerusalem daily without any fear but, nevertheless, he still wants out of the home he calls his "palace."
Rimonim began life in 1977 as a temporary military outpost for the IDF Nahal Brigade until it was turned over for civilian settlement by the Labor government. One day, a newspaper advertisement by the Jewish Agency and Ministry of Agriculture caught Avidan's eye. "Like 80% of the people here, we didn't come here for political reasons at all. We had three small children and thought that it would be a great place to raise them," he says. "But we were dreaming, we didn't think enough. We woke up from the dream in the first intifada."
Avidan's warm demeanor and unfailing smile belies the gravity of his words. "We don't have the right to rule over another people. At the Basel [Zionist] Congress, Herzl never said that we should be colonialists, we don't have this aim," he says.
Besides the perimeter fence and yellow security gate, there is no feeling of fortification like in Karnei Shomron. The religious settlements of Beit El and Ofra may lie just over the hill, but Rimonim feels like it's in the middle of nowhere, and it takes a keen eye to make out the towers of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem far on the horizon.
"This is a beautiful area, but everyone needs a place of his own," Avidan says. "They don't want us here and they're right. You can't keep a man waiting at the checkpoint every day, or seeing army jeeps driving past his home every day. What kind of situation have we come to?"
SINCE MOVING to the West Bank in 1982, Avidan and his wife left twice to rent in the Pisgat Ze'ev and French Hill neighborhoods of Jerusalem, but couldn't make ends meet financially. "I think that we have to leave. Whoever built the fence, it was completely political. Now there's nothing left for us here."
Once upon a time, he would go to shop and drink coffee in nearby Taiba, the only entirely Christian Palestinian village, and Arabs would come to the settlement to teach their mother tongue. "But those games are over now," he laments.
Avidan's neighbor, "Shlomi," is in no hurry to say good-bye to his comfortable lifestyle in Rimonim, where he has lived for 18 years, but has nothing against those who do. "Look, I love this place, but if they evacuate it for real peace, then I would leave. I'm not a fanatic, lots of people here think that way, too."
According to Dayan, most settlements on either side of the separation barrier are enjoying both a high demand for housing and "great" quality of life. On Karnei Shomron's Rehov Hagefen, luxury villas which wouldn't look out of place in upscale Herzliya are nearing completion. The buildings may be impressive, but their view is less spectacular than the wadi in Raz's backyard. Across the road, the depressing gray slabs of the concrete security wall encircling a children's playground have been painted over with trees and cartoon animals, but the color hardly glosses over the tangible security presence in the settlement.
"This is not the quality of life I want, stockade and tower with fences, the police and army all around," says Raz.
One irony of the settlements is that despite being in the middle of war zone, the atmosphere within their borders is often just as humdrum as a suburb in any other part of the world. Whether they like it or not, the people living there have no choice other than to continue with life as usual, until their fate is eventually decided one way or another. "I see myself as a temporary resident here," concedes Avidan. "I still tend my garden, but I hope that eventually my house will be given to someone else."