Exclusion from fence irks settlers

Ofarim and Beit Aryeh near Ben Gurion airport consider voluntary evacuation.

beit aryeh 298.88 (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
beit aryeh 298.88
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
The placement outside the security fence of mixed secular-religious settlements of Beit Aryeh and Ofarim, which overlook Ben-Gurion Airport, has pitted neighbor against neighbor. One Ofarim settler, Avinoam Magen, has even raised the question of voluntary evacuation. Magen mailed an unofficial referendum to each household two weeks ago asking if they would be willing to move should the government fail to change the situation. Magen's car was egged by an unknown party, and on Sunday night the joint Beit Aryeh and Ofarim council unsucessfully tried removing Magen from his position on it. Despite the anger he has faced, Magen expects residents to respond to his referendum. He intends to have the results ready by Monday or Tuesday. Magen was spurred into action by the placement last month of the two-hilltop settlements of 900 families outside the security fence. The two settlements are home to more than half the number of families who were evacuated from the Gaza Strip this summer, Magen noted. Few expected that the area, over the Green Line and just a 12-minute drive from Ben-Gurion Airport, would be placed outside the fence. The area has a view of Ben-Gurion's flight patterns, and on a good day one can stand at the Sharon observation point in Beit Aryeh and see from Hadera to Ashkelon. It is referred to as the country's "Watchtower" and is named for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who supported Beit Aryeh's establishment and often brought groups to the hilltop to survey the area. Magen said that since February the government has promised the settlers they would be included inside the fence. He believed the promises until he found himself driving outside the fence last month to get home. When he passes by the soldiers manning the break in the fence on his way home, it reinforces a simple belief. "If I'm not in the fence, it means they are going to evacuate me," he said. But Avi Naim, who heads the joint council, said Magen was mistaken and that his decision to hold an unofficial referendum only served to further heighten the insecurity of the residents. The lack of a fence is temporary, he said. "It's not true," he said. "We are going to be inside the fence." The Defense Ministry could not comment Sunday on the fence's route in that area. The One House movement, which is pushing for the voluntary evacuation of its count of 38 settlements outside the fence, said it includes Beit Aryeh and Ofarim among the 38. But Civil Administration spokesman Lt. Adam Avidan said that, in the end, the two settlements would be inside the fence. Naim said the government has told him that within a year it would build a fence shaped like a mushroom that would encircle the two settlements and allow its residents to exit the area through a thin strip. Residents would be able to drive in and out of the settlements without having to pass through a fence, he said. The referendum is not scientific, nor is it authorized, Naim said, but Magen's position on the council makes it appear as though the referendum was a council initiative. Naim also accused Magen, who is a member of the Labor Party and works in the Histadrut, of having a political agenda. Magen said he has been open both about his job and his political opinions, but that neither are the issue here. A father of two young children, who moved to Ofarim five years ago for the quality of life and its location in the country's center, he does not want to live in a community that suffers a slow death. Unlike Naim, he is not satisfied even with the idea of a mushroom fence, which he said would strangle the two communities. "It's like putting a duck in a sink," he said. The government should either build a proper fence or admit now that the two communities are doomed and evacuate them. The referendum, he said, was an attempt to see if his opinions are widespread or isolated. He is joined in his hatred of a mushroom fence by an unlikely ally, Beit Aryeh resident Shimon Bezalel Cohen. A member of the Likud central committee and a father of four, Cohen is hard-pressed to decide who angers him more, Naim or Magen. Cohen wants neither the mushroom fence nor voluntary evacuation. But he agrees with Magen that only a proper fence will allow their communities to survive. Recently, he formed a non-profit association for the preservation of Beit Aryeh and has even hired an attorney to represent them in their fight against the fence. But Naim said that the only "smart" fence is the mushroom one. That kind of construction would put the nearby Palestinian villages and their olive grooves outside of the fence, thereby preventing legal problems that would delay its construction, Naim said. He noted that, in spite of the good relations they have with their Palestinian neighbors, last week two cars were stoned as they drove to the settlements. A mushroom-shaped fence would prevent that, he said. Naim said his only issue with the fence's planned route is areas where it comes close to the settlements. There are a few points where it is only 50 meters away from their homes. Unless that is corrected, the council is likely to take the state to court. Magen, however, is unclear as to why Naim believes so strongly in the government's promises that there will be a fence at all. Sharon, he noted, promised the 1,500 families living in Gaza that he supported their right to live there and then evacuated them.