Settlers to US Jews: Help us to stay

They appeal to Americans to buy homes in West Bank and rent to young couples.

ofra settlement 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ofra settlement 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Settlers have appealed to American Jews to save their communities by buying homes in the West Bank and renting them out to young families at affordable rates to help solidify Israel's hold on the area. In a dramatic appeal that showed how the absence of government-assisted construction in the West Bank has stunted growth, settlers have warned American Jews that otherwise Judean and Samarian residents, particularly young couples, could leave. They have asked United States Jews to financially fill in the gap left by the Israeli government, which at one time massively subsidized West Bank housing. Such help trickled to a slow stop this decade and finally dried out this year, settlers said. On February 25 settlers will be in Teaneck, New Jersey hoping to entice ideological Americans to buy homes in places like Karnei Shomron, Eli, Otniel, Kiryat Arba and Shiloh. "Almost all communities in Yesha (Judea and Samaria) are full, with no possibility of accepting new young couples or families," said the Amana Settlement Movement in a letter to potential American buyers. "If we don't find a solution now, we will create our own population freeze, which may, in turn, begin a phenomenon unknown before in Yesha, that of families leaving our communities," warned Amana, which is the largest and oldest organization that develops land in Judea and Samaria. Amana was not assuaged by the 5.2 percent Jewish population hike in the West Bank, which was almost three times as high as the 1.8% growth registered in the rest of the country in 2006. Most of that population hike reflects the population increases in three large cities and is not reflective of most of the communities in the area where growth is stagnant. It's not just the current residents who are being dissuaded by the lack of available apartments, Amana executive director Alon Farbspein told The Jerusalem Post. "A lot of people want to live in Yesha and they have no place to go. We need to build more," said Farbspein. Building lots are available within permissible construction areas in the West Bank, it's the funds that are absent, Farbspein said. As evidence that legal construction exists in the territories in spite of the international condemnation against it, in 2005 the government published some 1,500 housing tenders for the West Bank. In addition 1,728 homes were constructed. But those constructed homes were private, said Emily Amrusi, the spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. What is absent is subsidized construction, she added. While Amana welcomes American buyers in all legal West Bank settlements, in a move that highlights the ideological aspect of the campaign, Amana has promoted 10 small and mid-size settlements of which at least seven are outside the boundaries of the security fence. They are also outside of the settlement blocs which Israel assumes it will retain in a final-status agreement. In a colorful ad which Amana has taken out in the Jewish media, including one that will be sent to members of, it invites buyers to walk in Abraham's footsteps and to help nurture the Zionist dream. "This would be an ideological investment," said Aliza Herbst, spokesperson for Pinchas Wallerstein, chairman of the Binyamin Regional Council. "It is geared towards people who believe it is important to have a strong presence in Judea and Samaria, answering the needs not only in terms of security, but also as far as young families go, this is what they can afford." In light of the focus on illegal construction in the West Bank, Amana has promised that houses will be built on "government lands allocated by the settlement department of the World Zionist Organization," and that "proper building licenses" will be obtained. The idea is that Americans would purchase the homes and rent them out to settlers, without having to deal with the hassles that accompany rental properties. Everything from property management to rent collection and transfer will be handled by Binyanei Bar Amana, a subsidiary housing organization of the Amana organization. The project is being billed as an opportunity for American Jews to have a say in Israel's future. The Amana campaign reminds US Jews that they could leave their "thumbprint" on Israel's destiny. "We are trying to help the settlements grow and prosper, and we see it as an investment in Israel's future," said Rabbi Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. His Orthodox synagogue in New Jersey is hosting the February 25 event with Amana. "We think it's good to remind Israelis and the Israeli government, that there are Jews in the world that believe God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. It's our job to ensure its survival, viability and prosperity and that's the primary motivation," Pruzansky said. He added that he had spoken with a number of his congregants who had expressed interest, though some of the details of the project still needed to be worked out. One concern is whether Americans who buy homes would be compensated if the settlements were evacuated, Pruzansky said. Houses will be sold starting at $93,000 and will be rented out at a minimum of $250 per month, though prices will vary. Amana has agreed to arrange financing, and provide guided tours of the communities in question. Should American buyers wish to sell their home, Amana will have the house vacated and made ready for sale. The hope is to kill two birds with one stone: Americans who ideologically support the settlements can secure land in the territories by building more houses, and at the same time ensure that young families can continue to repopulate the settlements. In Karnei Shomron for example, said Amrusi, 100 couples married last year. In her home settlement of Talmon one third of the residents live in caravans or rented basements because there is no housing. Dror Etkes of the non-governmental group Peace Now which monitors the territories said he was skeptical that Amana would get permits to build the homes even if it persuaded Americans to buy them. Unlike the picture presented by the settlers, it was his experience that people had a hard time getting rid of their homes in the territories. "We know that in a few settlements they have trouble getting rid of houses. What I think is that they are trying to recruit money from outside, so they have more money, and better cash flow. They would like to have more available money to be used." Etkes said that Shilo and Kiryat Arba, two of the settlements where Americans can choose to build, had empty houses. So far Amana has enlisted New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the 48th District, a largely Orthodox area of Brooklyn. Hikind, who was a follower of Rabbi Meir Kahane's Jewish Defense League, returned from Israel last week where he met with a range of Israeli intellectuals to discuss the role of American Jews in Israel, and plans to promote the project full force. To start, Hikind said he will be purchasing one of the houses together with a friend. "Whenever I speak about the situation in Israel people always ask me what they can do," said Hikind. "I'm going to give them something to do, something very real to be proud of. It's like Israel Bonds, making a commitment to the land of Israel, not just in words, but also in action." Hikind said he intends to do everything he can to "get the message out." Asked whether he was concerned about American Jews who are politically opposed to buying land in the settlements, Hikind said "there are enough people in the Jewish community who care deeply about the land of Israel and this is about investing in the land of Israel." Greer Faye Cashman and Shelly Paz contributed to this report.