From freeze to full-steam ahead?

Residents of Judea and Samaria prepare to resume construction, but eye their communities’ future with uncertainty.

West Bank construction 311 (photo credit: Miri Tzachi)
West Bank construction 311
(photo credit: Miri Tzachi)
Although it has become a tradition for right-wing Israelis and tourists to visit communities in Judea and Samaria during Succot, this year residents were wooing not only those who identify with their ideology, but also visitors from the left side of the political spectrum.
Residents aimed to open their homes to them and prove that they were not extremists, but ordinary folk concerned about Israel’s security who form a bulwark to protect the coastal towns and cities.
In the gracious bedroom community of Peduel, some 30 kilometers from the Mediterranean, Gabi Ellinson took busload after busload of visitors out to his back garden, which overlooks the panorama of the Coastal Plain.
“[Former prime minister Ariel] Sharon liked to call this the balcony of Israel. He was a frequent visitor,” Ellinson told his guests, as he produced a photograph of himself with Sharon and current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu taken at that spot.
Ellinson was among the pioneers of Peduel and has been living there for 26 years. He doesn’t know whether he will be able to live there for the rest of his life. If Peduel becomes part of the new Palestinian state, the 250 families who live there will have to move, unless provision is made for them to stay on as Israeli citizens in an independent state of Palestine.
“We hope that we’ll be seen as part of Ariel and Barkan. We don’t know if this place will stay or be given back,” said Ellinson.
In the worst-case scenario, he said, the residents would not fight the IDF, but would look for somewhere else to live.
He was hopeful that Israel’s decision-makers would realize the strategic importance of Peduel.
“Anyone who comes and sees this place will understand why we should stay. If we give it to the Palestinians, the whole country will become vulnerable, because they will be able to send missiles to Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva.”
At Eli – made famous by its heroes Maj. Ro’i Klein and Maj. Eliraz Peretz, both deputy commanders in the Golani Brigade who were killed in the line of duty – visitors were greeted by American-born Eliana Passentin, 36, who explained that when she and her husband chose to live there, it was because of the biblical history.
Their home overlooks Shilo, which for 369 years was the site of the Tabernacle. All around them are places of biblical significance, and on a clear day the view stretches from Jordan to Mount Hermon.
Passentin’s home and several others are in danger of being demolished because the final authorization for their property has to be signed by the defense minister, who has consistently held off even though all the infrastructure in the area, according to Passentin, was paid for by the government and the Jewish Agency.
The signing of the document is a mere technicality, she said, but without it, the houses are considered illegal structures. Peace Now took the State of Israel to court five years ago, demanding that these houses be razed.
The case has dragged on, and at the request of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the Supreme Court, it was put on hold for six months following the death of Peretz, whose widow was pregnant at the time and whose home is among those slated for demolition. But Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch has demanded a ruling by the beginning of next month.
For the people living in limbo until a decision is handed down, this period is fraught with anxiety. None of them are settlers who snuck onto the land in the middle of the night and set up an outpost, Passentin told the visitors who gathered in her succa; they did everything legally and by the book, but are now the victims of a political situation.
In Ariel, which has been in the headlines lately due to a boycott announced by 31 Israeli performers, construction of the cultural center due to open on November 8 has been going on undisturbed despite the freeze.
Avi Zimmerman, director of the Ariel Development Fund, explained that the freeze did not apply to public buildings that already had foundations and a floor.
The building, which is an extension of the Ariel Community Center, will be a regional center for the performing arts and will include seating for 540 people, plus a conservatory, drama school and restaurant.
The aim is to cultivate culture within the region and to provide an outlet for talented individuals. The building is almost complete, but the carpets still have to be laid down and the seats installed.
Zimmerman paid tribute to Ariel’s Mayor Ron Nahman, who, when he came to settle at the behest of the government 32 years ago, had a vision of a city with schools, a university, a community center, a sports center, a performing arts center and more.
At the time everyone thought he was crazy, said Zimmerman, but everything that he said would be created in Ariel is a reality.
Ariel is now a vibrant pluralistic community with a population of some 20,000 plus a student population (including Arabs) of 12,000 at the university center. The Nitzanim community, which moved into mobile homes in Ariel after its evacuation from Gaza five years ago, is still living there.
Unlike the residents of Eli, those of Ariel are not apprehensive about the future.
“It is part of the national consensus,” said Zimmerman, who was confident that Ariel was not in danger of being handed over to the Palestinians.
Like all communities in Judea and Samaria, Ariel is in need of both moral and financial support. With the opening of the performing arts center on the immediate horizon, “what we need right now,” said Zimmerman, “is a Steinway grand piano."