Take the Money and Run? (Extract)

A proposed bill to compensate West Bank settlers who agree to leave their homes voluntarily is provoking heated debate

Extract from article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A large, lemon-colored concrete structure resembling a pay station on a toll highway straddles the road between Qalqilya and Nablus, where it intersects with Israel's security barrier on the West Bank. Although it is located some 3 kilometers from the Green Line, the "Eliyahu Crossing," manned by a handful of soldiers, seems to mark a border. Cars coming from the West Bank toward Israel proper have to line up at one of three entrance points - for Palestinian special permit holders, Israeli citizens or others. "Sometimes I have to wait in line for half an hour just to go to Kfar Saba," says Beni Raz, who has lived in the settlement of Karnei Shomron, 7 kilometers into the West Bank from the crossing, for over 13 years. Now Raz, 55, is ready to leave the West Bank and would do so if the government paid him compensation. He says the crossing point, along with the construction of the security barrier, convinced him that Karnei Shomron will not remain part of Israel in any future settlement with the Palestinians. The government had planned to divert the security barrier to run deep into West Bank territory to include Karnei Shomron and several other settlements in a finger-shaped enclave that would remain Israeli. But work on the "finger" was frozen following strong American objections that it would impair the territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian state. "Anyway," says Raz, "who wants to live in an enclave? We would be the first ones to be attacked by terrorists." Although the security barrier cuts deep into the West Bank so that as many settlements as possible are on the "Israeli" side, it still leaves 74 settlements and over 80,000 settlers on the Palestinian side. While many of these settlers are determined to stay on and fight any attempt to evacuate them, others like Raz see no future for the settlements east of the fence. They believe that in any peace deal with the Palestinians all these settlements will be evacuated, or, alternatively, if there is no deal, being on the wrong side of the fence, they will be soft targets for Palestinian terrorists. People like Raz would like to pick up sticks and go back to Israel proper now. But there is a catch: House prices east of the fence are less than a quarter of those across the Green Line. Settlers who sell, even if they manage to find a buyer, wouldn't have the money to buy anything like a similar home in Israel proper. In a bid to solve the problem and to get a voluntary evacuation movement underway, anti-settlement Knesset members Avshalom Vilan of Meretz and Labor's Colette Avital have drafted a bill under which the government would offer to buy settlers' properties east of the fence for around $200,000 each, enough for the owners to make a fresh start on the Israeli side of the border. The bill, which is strongly opposed by the Israeli right, has the support of Labor leader Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon of Kadima. Vilan and Avital are confident that if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert survives the Winograd Report on his performance in the 2006 Lebanon war [see Reporter on page 3], the evacuation/compensation bill is almost certain to become the next major political battle on the Israeli agenda, possibly as early as next March. Raz, a dark, bald man with a square jaw and a booming voice, began lobbying for compensation in early 2005, in the run-up to the Gaza evacuation that summer. He had come to Karnei Shomron from Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov in what he describes as "the euphoric Rabin years, when peace was in the air." The family bought a 7-room duplex with a garden for $120,000, less than half of what they would have paid anywhere in Israel proper. "Quality of life" rather than ideological settlers, he, his wife Zmira and their four children grew attached to the place, and would never have thought of leaving, but for the changes he started noticing on the ground in 2004. "Suddenly, we realized we were east of the fence," he recalls. "The government started to dry us up. There was less investment and less army. Without asking us, they simply decided that we were on the wrong side of the fence. So I said to myself, 'If I am on the wrong side of the fence, what am I doing here?'" Raz approached Knesset member Vilan, who commissioned a survey to see how many settlers would consider leaving if offered reasonable compensation. Buoyed by the result - more than half said they would - Vilan, Avital and several other public figures, including Alon Pinkas, the former Israeli consul in New York [and now president of the Jerusalem Post group, that includes The Jerusalem Report], former northern area police chief Alik Ron and former Knesset member Dahlia Rabin set up an NGO called "One Home," with the express purpose of lobbying for a fair evacuation-compensation law, in the hope that it would trigger a movement away from the settlements, which are seen on the left as an obstacle to peace. But on the right, ideological settlers, who see in settling all parts of the Holy Land a divine mission, regard the compensation moves as treachery. And when Raz gave several newspaper interviews in favor of compensation, the ideological settlers who run the Karnei Shomron local council promptly fired him from his job as director of transport. "As soon as I started talking, I got a letter saying I wasn't doing my job. There were also threatening telephone calls. Even my wife, who works as a kindergarten teacher, got a call saying, 'Your husband talks too much.' She works at an Orthodox kindergarten. They said it might not be good for her job." Today, Raz works as a full-time One Home activist, going from settlement to settlement to spread the word. He claims to have signed up thousands of settlers on lists for compensation, but says many insist on confidentiality for fear of losing their jobs or being ostracized in their local communities. One Home's detailed 17-page draft law has six main points: • The government will buy only settler homes east of the fence. • It will buy only the homes, and not pay compensation for businesses or anything else. • It will be ready to buy the homes as soon as the law is passed, even before any deal with the Palestinians. • The homes will be boarded up to prevent any takeover by ideological settlers. • Breaking in will be considered a criminal act, liable to 3 years in prison. • Compensated settlers will have to move to new homes inside the Green Line. Since the homes will be bought for an estimated $200,000 each and the bill's sponsors expect 10,000 families to take up the offer, the initial cost will be around $2 billion. "It's to everyone's advantage," says Avital. "The people already know we won't stay east of the fence, so it's worth their while to take the money and buy a home inside the Green Line as soon as possible, and start planning a new future for themselves and their children. As for the government, it won't have to face settler blackmail, it will be able show the international community that it is serious about evacuating settlers, and it will be able to do this without getting involved in battles with settlers who don't want to leave." But the right-wingers take a very different view. They argue that encouraging settlers to leave before an agreement with the Palestinians is reached undercuts Israel's negotiating posture. Worse: It could erode the entire settler enterprise by ratcheting up pressure on the ideological settlers to leave in the wake of the exodus of their more materialistic "quality of life" neighbors. Extract from article in Issue 22, February 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.