Gush Etzion's outermost settlements contemplate an uncertain future

Tekoa is one of five communities outside the path of the barrier.

tekoa 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
tekoa 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From the second-story balcony of her home, Shani Simkovitz gazes at the sweeping Tekoa landscape of pine trees and shrub-covered hills that she has known for 25 years. Although her view eventually gives way to the Judean desert, which stretches to the Dead Sea, Simkovitz hopes for a future in those barren mountains too. These days, though, the main questions on her mind don't relate to the lives she would like her children to build further into the desert one day, but to her family's wellbeing right here in the years, even months, ahead. "The issue of the fence comes up for me every day," Simkovitz said. "It's strangling us." Tekoa, which was established 30 years ago, has approximately 1,500 residents. Like five other communities in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc south of Jerusalem, it finds itself outside the proposed route of the security fence that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is building. While the fence route zigs and zags its way around the West Bank to accommodate many large settlements and some small ones, and thus seemingly protects the residents of those communities from the chopping block of disengagement, the people of Tekoa find themselves in limbo. Having seen one disengagement already, and reading between the lines in the platform recently announced by the Kadima party, they have all but accepted that if the government builds a barrier separating them from the rest of Israel, they will likely meet the same fate as the refugees from Gush Katif. "I'm not complaining about my life here," Simkovitz said, alluding to the numerous attacks settlers have suffered on the road leading to this hilltop community, which winds through a half-dozen Palestinian villages. (Two 13-year-olds from Tekoa, Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran, were bludgeoned to death by Palestinian terrorists while hiking near home in May 2001.) "I just hope this life continues. Maybe that is what Greater Israel doesn't understand." Like many people in Tekoa, Simkovitz not only opposes a fence route that cuts off her community from Israel, she does not want a fence at all. "I didn't live with a fence for 25 years. What do we need one for now?" she asked. Though Tekoa residents generally reject the government's view that the fence cuts down on terrorism, and prefer a more aggressive approach, they are taking what they call a pragmatic line in their battle to keep their community. Different routes for the fence and the roads connecting eastern Gush Etzion directly to Jerusalem are all proposals Gush Etzion Regional Council head Yair Wolf and a team of colleagues is taking to the army, the government and courts in an effort to save the towns that are part of the regional council, but are situated on the outskirts. "I'm not dreaming," said Wolf, who also opposes its construction. "Israel will succeed in building the fence." From his office in the Gush Etzion Regional Council building, the view extends westward to the Palestinian village of Jaba, which, under the current plan, would be perched directly above and on the other side of the fence. "From one side you can say it's for security, but everyone knows that this is going to be the border," Wolf said. In that respect, those who may find themselves outside the future border, along with their proponents, are particularly upset at the decision-making process going into the fence route. "Right now what's happening is that army officers and the courts are drawing the border," Wolf said. "Where are the politicians who are supposed to be making those decisions?" But as long as the government insists that the fence is not a permanent border, Wolf is not likely to get an answer. In the meantime, Gush Etzion is working to get the most favorable fence routing it can muster. Since the High Court of Justice - citing excessive diminished quality of life to Palestinians - changed the route of the fence around Gush Etzion from the one originally proposed by the government, Chanania Nachliel has gone over the new route meticulously. Behind the wheel of his SUV, Nachliel drove on a dirt path skirting the edge of a pine tree-covered cliff. He stopped his car at a point overlooking Bat Ayin to the south, and an uninhabited higher hill to the north. On his laptop, Nachliel pulled up a picture taken from this spot, overlaid with the route of the fence running just below Bat Ayin. Leaving the high ground to the Palestinians is not an option he wants to explore. "We're not naive," said the 10-year resident of Gush Etzion. "We understand that in the end, the State of Israel needs a fence. But let's put it in the right place. The way we are doing things now is just treating the symptoms, it's not curing the disease." As the sun falls below the western hills, the last people come in and out of Tekoa for the evening. The road to the center of Gush Etzion is in danger from attacks and road accidents and it is not advisable to travel at night. At the bus stop just inside the town's gate, Meir Ben-Hayoun waited for a ride to Jerusalem. "I could feel the Bible here," Ben-Hayoun said, explaining why he moved to Tekoa in 1991. "So many places in Israel are beautiful, but here I felt a connection." Contemplating that connection being torn from him is not pleasant, but it is something the Algerian-born oleh does often these days. In this respect he feels like a minority in his town, despite what may be its inevitable severing from the rest of Israel - or even its destruction. "People here are in denial," Ben-Hayoun said. "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."