Divided they stand

Settlers have a range of reactions to the security barrier and Ehud Olmert's 'convergence' plan.

security fence 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
security fence 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From her second-story Tekoa balcony, Shani Simkovitz can see not only the past 30 years of development which has yielded hundreds of homes and a community of more than 1,500 people on these pine-tree-lined and shrub-covered hills. Gazing eastward, to the moonscaped mountains of the Judean desert, she sees a thriving future where her children should be building the next generation of Jewish settlements. But these days, it is not the idyllic years ahead the 25-year resident is contemplating, but an uncertain present. "The issue of the fence comes up every day in my family," Simkovitz said, referring to the security fence Israel is building in and around the West Bank. "It's strangling us." While international criticism and local protestations have rained down on Israel for the negative impact the barrier is having on Palestinian livelihood, it is also upending the lives of thousands of Israeli settlers who see in the fence the beginning of the end of their time in Judea and Samaria. "I'm not dreaming. Israel will succeed in building the fence," said Yair Wolf, the deputy mayor of Gush Etzion, the settlement bloc just a few miles west of Tekoa which will remain inside the fence's perimeter. Like most people in his jurisdiction, Wolf opposes the barrier because of what it will do to Tekoa and a few other satellite communities. "From one side, you can say this is for security, but everyone knows this is going to be a border and those people will have to leave." Within those borders, which include east Jerusalem and major settlement blocs such as Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim, in addition to Gush Etzion, most of the 240,000 Israeli Jews living on land captured in the Six Day War will remain. But in the wake of the March 28 election, and the Ehud Olmert-led coalition it will likely yield, that leaves up to 80,000 settlers like Simkovitz in around 65 settlements facing the prospect of eviction from their homes, possibly in the not-too-distant future. In interviews conducted by The Jerusalem Post across the West Bank over the last few months, settlers revealed a prism of reactions and strategies to the fence, and to Olmert's "convergence" plan, from those who vow never to leave this biblical ground to groups who are proactively seeking a way out. Around Tekoa, six miles south of Jerusalem, the security fence has yet to be built. Nevertheless, it has cast a larger-than-life shadow, causing some residents, like Simkovitz, to plot political and tactical strategies to defend their homes from evacuation. But most people, said 15-year resident Meir Ben-Hayoun "are in denial. It seems obvious that they will evacuate us, but no one here talks about what we will do when that day comes." Instead, the father of two young daughters said, home construction in Tekoa continues and "the people go on acting like we will be here forever." NINETY MINUTES north of here, near the city of Nablus, where olive groves cover the rolling hills, Beni Raz is taking the exact opposite approach. A 13-year resident of Karnei Shomron, a town of 7,000 close to the largest settlement, Ariel, Raz has started an organization which is trying to get the government to fund a voluntary Jewish evacuation of the West Bank. Though Karnei Shomron lies within a broad swath of the West Bank the security fence will supposedly encompass when it is complete, Raz said he does not want to live with the uncertainty of one day perhaps being forced to leave. "Reality is stronger than we are and we know the world is changing," said Raz, who sees no final peace until Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders. "We want to build our future and we want to build it in a permanent place." According to him, the fence has made Jews living on the other side of it "secondary citizens" whose protection is no longer a priority of the army. That, and a desire to avoid the fate of the Gaza evacuees - many of whom are unemployed and some still without even temporary housing more than six months after disengagement - has convinced many non-religious people that it is time to leave. "We're saying, 'We don't want to wait; let's go now,' We're just looking for help to do it," Raz said. "Most of us are not ideologues. We just came here for a good life, and we're very happy to have it somewhere else." But as more secular settlers look for ways to return to 1967 Israel, harder-line elements are digging their heals in to entrench themselves in the land as deeply as they can. In the biblical city of Hebron, an hour south of Jerusalem and home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, around 500 Jews live among 150,000 Palestinians. In January, when police tried to serve eviction notices to eight Jewish families there who took over the Shalhevet market place claimed by Palestinians, days of riots broke out in which settlers donned masks and hurled rocks at police and army forces. According to David Wilder, a spokesman for Hebron's Jewish community, those riots would be "children in a nursery school compared to what might happen" if they were forced out of Hebron. "I don't like to be crass, but if someone came in and said, 'I'm going to rape your wife,' would you say, 'Come in, here's the bedroom?'" To a person, the Jews of Hebron refuse any scenario which would see them leaving the city. Like many religious settlers in the West Bank, the connection to the land, and in this case, the holy site, is too strong to allow for voluntarily severing. Any effort to remove them, said Hebron Deputy Police Chief Avi Herush, "is likely to be violent." THOUGH IT was "the spirit of the land" that led Tamar Asaraf to Hayovel eight years ago, violent resistance is not something she and her community advocate. Her brand new home, and 11 others like it, constitute this outpost an hour north of Tekoa along the main West Bank highway perched atop a mostly baron hill studded with shrubs, where cold winds penetrate even winter clothing. Due to its illegal status, Hayovel may be evacuated months or years before established settlements built with government support. When parts of a similar outpost, Amona, were dismantled in February, violent confrontations between protesters and the police and IDF forces that did the job left more than 200 people injured. That incident, and its contrast to the relatively peaceful disengagement from Gaza last summer, convinced Asaraf that if the order came from the government to leave, she would do so before the soldiers and police came, in order to spare her children the trauma of eviction and the likely media circus surrounding it. Nevertheless, in the evacuation of settlers and demolition of their homes, Asaraf sees a determination from politicians and unsympathetic citizens to destroy the "precious way of living" in these settlements. "It is not common to find neighbors with honesty, simplicity and dignity" in this country anymore, said Asaraf, who was born in a suburb of Tel Aviv before becoming religious and moving to Hayovel in her mid-20s. "In Tel Aviv, you see a culture that is not an honest way of living. All of it is for show. Every time I come back here, I thank God for the kind people I live with." Though Palestinian towns surround Hayovel and the perimeter of the settlement is patrolled night and day by residents with M-16s slung around their shoulders, Asaraf said that living there allows her four children to grow up in relative safety. "Here, my kids are really kids. They are kept in such an innocent place," she said. "The danger here is from terrorists, but how many kids were murdered here compared to how many were raped or abused in other places?"