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Israeli West Bank Settlers’ Dilemma: Stay or Move On

TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Baruch and his wife, Ravit, left their modern, red-roofed home in this Jewish settlement after dark one day last week, taking a drive to the Tel Aviv hospital where Ravit was scheduled for a kidney transplant the next morning.

Israeli troops, mistaking the Israelis for Palestinian terrorists, opened fire on the couple’s Renault, killing 30-year-old David and injuring Ravit.

For the 13,000 settlers in Ariel, the tragedy renewed a debate that is echoing across the West Bank’s Jewish settlements. The almost idyllic life in these modern hilltop communities has been punctured by the fear that rules the roads the settlers must take between Israel and the Palestinian-populated regions.

A pregnant woman, the mother of two, was killed by Palestinians at almost the same spot just weeks earlier. And the region is girding for revenge attacks following the massacre of 48 Palestinians by a Jewish settler in Hebron last month.

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But the 130,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who make up just a fraction of Israel’s 5.3 million citizens, have a more pressing worry. It is that the Israeli government will relinquish its occupied territory and leave those communities in the middle of a Palestinian state.

And a debate now rages among the residents of Ariel, 30 miles east of Tel Aviv, over whether they should stay or go live elsewhere.

“I’m ready to leave now, and there are plenty of people like me,” said Yitzhak Kopler, 42, who lives with his wife and a teen-age son in a three-bedroom apartment here. “I feel like a guard dog for the government.”

The apartment he bought here a dozen years ago for $120,000, with easy government-assisted financing designed to encourage such settlers, “wouldn’t get me $50,000 today,” he said. His hope is that the government will give the settlers similar accommodations on Israeli soil.

But Yigal Rosenthal, the deputy mayor and one of the settlement’s founders, hopes the government will keep Ariel alive. On a coffee table in the waiting room at Rosenthal’s city office is a petition demanding that the government pull out of peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“The situation today is impossible,” Rosenthal said. “And it is the responsibility of the government to rectify it.”

He has shelved his original plan to create a settlement of 100,000 people here. New arrivals have dropped off since the government removed its subsidies on home purchases in the settlements a year ago. And about 500 new apartments and houses are vacant.

“Every family, every individual, including myself, is asking themselves: How can I live here? What should I do? We are not cows. We are thinking people.”

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He has his doubts about whether people will want to stay, especially after the accidental killing of David Baruch. “You can’t blame the army for mistakes,” he said. “It’s impossible to deal with terrorists and protect us. But I don’t know how our people will react. Only fools are prophets these days.”

Ehud Sprinzak, a professor at Hebrew University, says that the Hebron massacre, carried out by an extremist Jewish settler, and the Palestinian riots that have followed have been a major blow to the cause of Jewish settlers.

“When people talk about settlers, even in Israel, they tend to lump them all together,” Sprinzak said. “That’s incorrect, but we’re talking about images. And the image of the settler community has been damaged considerably.”

The government is not going to take any action to eliminate the settlements now, Sprinzak contends, because it wants to use them as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the Palestinians. “But if this peace process is successful, they will have to be evacuated. And there is growing anxiety.”

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Many of the 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are the creations of ideological Jews staking a claim to the biblical lands of Israel. But others--like Ariel, one of the largest--were settled by Israelis whose main goal was to have more space and more affordable housing. It is these settlers who are ready to bail out, though they are trapped by their pocketbooks.

Although house prices in Israel have increased sharply in the past decade, values in the settler communities have fallen precipitously.

Abraham Miles, a 51-year-old businessman, sold his house in Tel Aviv 13 years ago to move to Ariel, where the proceeds bought a much larger home. He figures his Ariel home is worth about $90,000 now, barely enough to buy a one-room apartment in Tel Aviv.

“In no way, shape or form did religious ideology bring me here,” Miles said. “And I’d say 95% of the residents are like me. They came to improve the quality of their life. But that quality has disappeared.”

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His two grown children have gone off to school in Jerusalem, but they are afraid to risk their lives on the roads to visit Ariel.

About half the residents of Ariel make the 45-minute commute to jobs in Tel Aviv. And trouble on that road, where Baruch was killed and others have been pelted with stones and gunfire from Palestinians, has been increasing ever since the Israeli government signed its initial peace pact with the PLO in September.

Yitzhak Kopler’s taxi was pelted with stones twice last week as he drove customers to Jerusalem. And his out-of-town business, as well as his nighttime trade, has dried up.

“Every day gets a little more difficult,” he said. “People are afraid to leave this community. There’s no going or coming. The community is under siege from dusk until dawn.”

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Like other residents, Kopler wrestles with the moral issues as well. Do the Jewish people have the right to this land? “From the standpoint of the Bible, we have a right,” he said. “But who am I to take away the right of someone who was here before me? If I take his land today, then he will take it away from me tomorrow.

“I used to think differently,” he added. “But now I’m willing to give everything for peace and serenity. The Palestinian people have risen up, and they are right. We should give them what they want.”

Among those who want to stay, though, are Lila and Joel Bernstein, Americans who have lived in Israel for 23 years and moved here seven years ago. Lila, a 56-year-old nurse, runs the local retirement center, the Warm-Hearted Club. Her husband is an electrical engineer in Tel Aviv.

They have four children, all of whom have served in the Israeli military. They moved here because the 1,500-foot elevation was good for Joel Bernstein’s asthma and because, although they are not very religious, “biblically, we feel we should be here,” Lila said.

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“Most of the people I know are very angry, very sad and very depressed about the situation,” she added. “It’s difficult to live with all this tension. But we’re here. This is my home. And I don’t want to give up my home.”

The Bernsteins want to stay in their four-bedroom home, and they say they would never ask the government for compensation, as some have suggested as a way to get the settlers to move.

“We’re not ogres or mean people,” Lila said, adding that she was shocked and angered by the mosque massacre. “We’re just ordinary people. Good people. You don’t have to be religious to have strong feelings about something. But I just hope I’m strong enough to stay.”

Times researcher Emily L. Hauser in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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