Green and pleasant land?

Karnei Shomron looks forward to a quiet, pastoral existence - within the boundaries of a security fence.

karnei shomron sign 88 (photo credit: )
karnei shomron sign 88
(photo credit: )
'Life is one world, and life seen in the newspapers another," once said G.K. Chesterton. For some newspaper readers, the mere mention of life behind the Green Line brings images of religious fanaticism or "crazy settlers." But for those with the fortitude to visit a community like Karnei Shomron, 17 kilometers east of Kfar Saba, stereotypical thinking is no longer an option. In Karnei Shomron, a part of the Ariel bloc, life goes on as it has for nearly 30 years, with residents going out to work, feeding their families, having babies, marrying off children - and yes, sometimes burying victims of terrorist attacks - just like the residents of any other community in Israel. Looking around this quiet, perfectly ordinary community, you begin to understand why people who are seemingly quite intelligent are willing to bet the family farm - not to mention their family's savings - and buy themselves a home in Judea and Samaria. If the government is to be believed, Karnei Shomron and its neighbors - Ma'aleh Shomron, Kedumim, Yakir, Nofim and a host of others - will eventually be a part of "Israel proper," to use the politically correct term. The area is slated to be enclosed within the security fence, which is going up at a rapid pace. And although many Israelis in the area aren't happy with the idea of being "fenced in" - with all that implies for the settlements "left behind" - newcomers say the strong likelihood that the area will be annexed to Israel has encouraged them to buy homes. Karnei Shomron, founded in the early 1980s, is made of three separate "official" neighborhoods spread out over several adjacent hilltops - Karnei Shomron, Neve Menachem and Ginot Shomron, which has a substantial English speaking population and is home to olim from all parts of the English-speaking world. Ginot Shomron, especially, is well integrated, with about a quarter of the families in town hailing from Anglo countries and about 40 percent of the population observant (Karnei Shomron is mostly Israeli and observant, Neve Menachem has a large population of olim from the former Soviet Union and is mostly secular). In addition, Ginot Shomron boasts its own almost totally Anglo neighborhood, Neve Aliza, where the streets are closed on Shabbat and the locals pray in an American-style Young Israel synagogue. "There really is something for everyone here," says Marcy Oster, assistant director of the Karnei Shomron Foundation, a local civic group. Townies pride themselves on the educational options the community provides for their children, especially at the elementary level. The general grade school, Rimon, was named top this year in student performance, behavior and accomplishment in the Central Region, and parents positively kvell at the education their kids are getting in the Lapidim religious elementary school, which has, as an aside, successfully mainstreamed a number of kids that in other schools would have been placed in special education classes. There is also a boys' yeshiva high school, a Hesder yeshiva and a girl's seminary, although many kids commute to schools in nearby Kedumim or Alfei Menashe (secular high school). In addition, there is a special education resource center, an active Golden Age center and several Mifal Hapayis-National Lottery sponsored community centers. Karnei Shomron is "on the map," residents will tell you, with a population of some 7,000 people. Most breadwinners commute to jobs in Herzliya, Petah Tikva, the Barkan industrial zone near Ariel or Tel Aviv, and some even travel back and forth to Jerusalem. "Thanks to upgraded roads in the area, especially Road 444, route 6 and the upgrades at the Kessem junction, commuting nowadays is easier than ever," says Oster, with commutes to Tel Aviv running 30 to 40 minutes, while a ride to Jerusalem via route 6 will take "about an hour." Not that everyone in town commutes; a decent number of residents work out of their homes via the Internet or at various cottage industries, and the town boasts an industrial zone with several manufacturing concerns. When work and school are done, residents can take a dip in the town's pool or work out in the fitness center. The town also has its own open-air shopping center, which recently saw a popular bakery/coffee shop open and where residents can do grocery shopping at a decent-sized store that's somewhere between a corner store and a supermarket. There are a number of well-maintained parks in Karnei Shomron, and the town borders Nahal Kana, a historic wadi that marked the border between lands belonging to the tribes of Efraim and Menashe. Majestically quiet and utterly empty except for two small settlements on neighboring hilltops and some fields cultivated by local Beduin, Nahal Kana, which runs to the south/southeast of Karnei Shomron toward Ariel, offers beautiful views and is listed as a nature reserve. THE TOWN has seen its share of tragedy, however. Karnei Shomron's shopping center was the site of a terrorist attack in February 2002 which saw three teenagers - Rachel Thaler, Keren Shatsky and Nehemia Amar - killed, and many other kids wounded. Also killed by terrorists were Tehiya Bloomberg, a nurse well-known in the community, as well as Gilad Zar, the son of area pioneer Moshe Zar. The elder Zar was the first Israeli to move into what would later become Karnei Shomron when he purchased land on the "horns of Samaria," two tall peaks that provide a magnificent view of the coastal strip on a clear day, "from Hadera to Gedera" - literally. Residents agree that the security situation is much better now, as the IDF runs regular patrols along the highway leading to town. "Anyway, when the fence is completed, we won't be using this road at all, and a new road will be paved inside the fence that will not pass through any Arab towns," said one city official. Right now, though, you do pass through an Arab town - Nebi Elias - on your way to Karnei Shomron. Nebi Elias had its 15 minutes of fame earlier this year when the local mosque was scrawled with anti-Islamic slogans by as yet unidentified parties. Lawyers for Nebi Elias and the neighboring Palestinian town of Azoun recently won a lawsuit before the High Court that will require the state to move a portion of the security fence around the nearby community of Tzofim, a settlement hugging the Green Line. But driving through Nebi Elias turns out to be an interesting experience; since the rerouting of the Trans-Samaria Highway around Bidya, this might be one of the last Arab market towns in Samaria that Jews are able to shop in, apparently without political or security repercussions. Although the IDF has severely cautioned Israelis against getting out of their cars in villages like this, many apparently feel safe enough to patronize the local auto-repair shops, and there seem to be plenty of folk wearing the Hassidic garb associated with residents of the nearby town of Emanuel (also in the Ariel bloc and somewhat east of Karnei Shomron) shopping at Nebi Elias's discount furniture outlet. In fact, says Moshe, a Karnei resident, "driving through Nebi Elias a couple of days before Pessah this year, I saw a group of Haredim making a purchase at, of all places, the local butcher, buying a live animal that would no doubt end up on several families' plates as Seder dinner after undergoing shehita." Residents of Karnei Shomron say that once upon a time, Palestinian laborers were a common sight on the yishuv, with many working on construction projects. Since the beginning of the second intifada, though, that's changed, and while Israeli Arabs from within the Green Line can legally enter the yishuv, Arabs who are subjects of the Palestinian Authority cannot. Over the past several years, especially since the terrorist attack at the shopping center, the town has been putting up a security fence of its own, which is now more or less complete; the front of the fence features sophisticated electronic detection equipment to ensure that unwelcome visitors stay out of town. While the perception in Green Line Israel is that many settlers in Judea and Samaria are counting the days until the government passes an evacuation/compensation law that covers them, this is far from the truth. In Karnei Shomron one repeatedly hears from residents that they do not wish to leave, even if the government were to make it easy for them. And it's not necessarily because of social pressure or their views of the importance of "the complete Land of Israel" - although for many, especially the religious, that is indeed a factor. But even secular residents who theoretically moved to the community because of lower housing prices, say they love it here and wouldn't leave even if they could. "There's a sense of community here that you just don't find anywhere else," says Oster. "Maybe it's a shared sense of experience, or maybe it's the quiet lifestyle, or maybe it's the fact that parents are not afraid to let their kids roam the streets here, but this yishuv has a great deal of 'staying power.' Once people come, they stay." The proof? "There's a big demand for rentals, especially of private homes, and it can take a little extra effort to find one." Ditto for buyers, says Oster - homes, especially in Neve Aliza, are hard to come by. But the housing stock in town has something for everyone's pocketbook, she says. In Ginot Shomron, "Garden apartments and bi-level apartments are usually readily available, with very reasonable rents. A four-room garden apartment can go for anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, depending on location and condition," says Yossi Baal-Shem, a local real-estate agent. There are also attached cottages and villas (in Neve Aliza and the Bene Beitcha areas of Ginot Shomron, as well as in the Karnei and Neve Menachem areas). A new project of garden apartments and cottages in Karnei Shomron has been selling well, and the local council is planning a project in Neve Aliza, whereby a family will be able to buy a 177 square meter cottage (attached on one side) for about $150,000, 95 percent financed by a local bank. It all sounds so idyllic; but there is a fly in the ointment. "If we were anywhere else in Israel, people would be breaking the doors down to buy homes here, which would be worth an easy half million dollars," says Baal-Shem. But because of the stigma attached to it by the "s" word - "settlement" - Karnei Shomron's appeal is less than universal, to say the least. WHILE THE government at this time plans on keeping the area, that's no guarantee for the future. And even if it is - what about the Palestinians and their relationship to the yishuv? Most Israelis agree that the country has gotten a raw deal from the World Court, which last year declared all the settlements "illegal." But doesn't that - shouldn't that - impact on a person's buying decision? In other words, who in their right mind would put money into a place with so many question marks surrounding it? "I'll tell you who," says Jay Shapiro, an author, radio personality and long-time Ginot Shomron resident. "The same people who buy apartments and homes in Ramat Aviv. "Karnei Shomron was established on state land that was liberated by Israel in the Six Day War. Before that it belonged to the Jordanian military," he continues. "So no Arabs owned land here, or indeed in almost any other established settlement in Judea and Samaria. Settlements established on non-state land were built on land legally purchased from their Arab owners. And no Arabs were thrown out of their homes to make way for this town - unlike in Ramat Aviv." And he's right: little do most Israelis know that Roger Waters changed the venue for his concert last month from Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv to Neve Shalom "under pressure from British groups," as the news agencies called it. That "pressure" was applied because Yarkon Park itself is on the site of an abandoned Arab village called Jarisha. "We're as kosher as Ramat Aviv, also known as Sheikh Muwannis, from an ethical, legal and political point of view - if not more so," Shapiro says. It certainly is food for thought - and maybe, just maybe, Karnei Shomron is a place with as much of a future as any other in Israel. Indeed, according to Mayor Herzl Ben-Ari, head of the local council of Karnei Shomron, the area's future is assured. The government has no intention of uprooting the 25,000 or so Jews who live in the northern Ariel finger; and the settlement bloc system is a plan "that even Yossi Beilin has signed onto," Ben-Ari says. That doesn't mean that Ben-Ari thinks the security fence is a great idea. "We see how effective the fence has been around Gaza," Ben-Ari says, referring to the intensive shelling of southern Israel by Kassam rockets and the kidnapping of IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit via an under-fence tunnel. "But if there is going to be a fence anyway, it's better to be inside it than outside," since it places the town "in the consensus, assuring residents and visitors that they are definitely inside Israel." Speaking to the mayor, in fact, he seems to miss the days when Jewish and Arab residents of the Shomron felt comfortable enough to do business with each other - and even pay each other social visits. "We would visit friends in Kalkilya before the first intifada, and they would ask us for help in resolving their personal and business disputes," the mayor says, mourning a world that is no more. Nevertheless, "There are a million reasons to move to Karnei Shomron," Ben-Ari adds, listing the town's education system, historic location, beautiful natural scenery and community - especially community - as the prime factors. "It's not just about wanting to be closer to Eretz Yisrael," Ben-Ari says, "but about being close to other Jews, given the very well-integrated community." The different community options offered by Karnei Shomron, the sense of "togetherness" and the services available - synagogues, schools and "we even have a local National Security office" - make the place an ideal choice, "especially for new olim from the US and the UK," Ben-Ari says. And while most residents would agree, there are some who hope the place retains some of its low-profile charm. "After the fence will come the contractors," says one resident, "and they'll do to the Shomron what they did to the Sharon. Mark my words," she says, referring to the go-go real-estate projects popping up in Hod Hasharon, Kfar Saba and the suburbs of Netanya, "[Karnei Shomron] is nice and quiet, just the way I like it. It's a good place to live, just the way it is."