High on a hilltop in the northern West Bank, this tiny Jewish settlement has the feel of a ghost town. Visitors who get past the soldier warily guarding the front gate find streets empty of cars. The playground is silent, and thigh-high weeds choke the front yards of many of the red-roofed stucco homes.
Before the current Palestinian uprising, 60 families lived in this bedroom community. Today, only 37 families remain, and some have announced their intention to leave. Across the West Bank, other families worn out by nine months of fighting with the Palestinians are moving out.
Palestinian militants have vowed to use force to drive Jews from the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, if they do not leave on their own. With drive-by shootings and ambushes now commonplace, the Israeli government worries that the campaign of terror is taking a toll.
No precise number is available on how many settlers have moved out since the violence erupted in September. The Yesha Council, the umbrella group that represents West Bank and Gaza Strip settlers, insists that there are families on waiting lists for homes in some settlements. But the U.S. State Department and Israeli peace groups say thousands of housing units now stand empty, particularly in isolated outposts and some of the small Gazan communities.
In a survey of settler attitudes published recently in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, 19% of the 500 settlers questioned said they would leave the West Bank if they could. The growing willingness to leave reflects how the population of Jews in the West Bank has changed over the years as it has grown to an estimated 200,000 people living in nearly 140 settlements scattered among about 2 million Palestinians.
During a visit this week to the area, the Israeli army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, heard from local commanders that they fear that many settlers in the northern West Bank are planning to move this summer.
"The dilemma of whether to remain in the territories will reach a climax for many families as the school year ends," military correspondent Amos Harel wrote Monday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "The abandonment will be felt mainly in the secular settlements . . . but not only there."
In an effort to stave off an exodus, Harel said, the army is flooding the area with troops from elite units, offering more escorts for settlers, handing out bulletproof vests in some communities and renting more armored buses in what he called "an enormous effort so that the abandonment does not occur."
After Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War, the Jews who came to the West Bank were mostly religiously observant ideologues who called the territory Judea and Samaria and saw it as an integral part of the Land of Israel. But in the last two decades, thousands of people have moved here seeking a better life than they could afford in the crowded, expensive cities of Israel. Many are neither religiously observant nor ideologically committed.
It is those later settlers who are now being called "the soft underbelly" of the settlement movement by Israeli newspapers. They are people unprepared to keep attending the funerals of neighbors gunned down driving to or from work, and sick of wearing flak jackets and helmets for their own daily commutes.
"Before things got bad here, it was like America," said Yossi Taub, 38, who moved to Homesh five years ago and lives here with his wife and five children. "The air is clean, the scenery is beautiful, it was quiet, we used to go to the neighboring [Palestinian] village to buy things."
Today, that village is under curfew, after two Homesh residents were shot dead in less than a week on the winding road that leads from it to the settlement.
Now, Taub said, his terrified wife is insisting that they leave. He says he would like to move temporarily, perhaps to a safer settlement, closer to the border with Israel. The couple are arguing over what to do.
Marcel Sitbon, a divorced mother of five, said she is no longer debating a course of action--she is leaving. After 13 years in Homesh, Sitbon said, she is unwilling to expose her children to danger any longer.
"I love this place," she said of the settlement, which was founded in 1980. "I came here not for economic reasons but out of ideology, because I believe that this is my country, that there is one country for the Jews. All my children love Homesh very much, but now I am very afraid for my children."
Every school day, Sitbon said, her children ride for 90 minutes in an armored bus escorted by army jeeps to reach their school in the Alfei Menashe settlement, about 15 miles southwest of Homesh. She calls the bus driver's cell phone every few minutes to check that nothing has happened on the road. When she and her neighbors travel to the grocery store, they lie on the floor of an armored bus. The owner of Homesh's single convenience store must make daily trips out of the settlement to pick up supplies of milk, bread, eggs and other staples because food delivery trucks won't come here.
After her neighbors, Danny Yehuda and Iliya Krivitz, were killed on the road to Homesh in separate drive-by shootings earlier this month, Sitbon said, she made up her mind. Now she is looking for a place to rent in Israel and a moving company brave enough to come for her belongings.
"It is legitimate and natural to want to protect your children," she said.
Rachel Von Brandis, 27, has lived in Homesh since she was 7, except for a few years spent in Tel Aviv and South Africa. She moved back to the settlement 10 months ago with her 34-year-old South African-born husband, Charles. Von Brandis said she came because her parents are here, housing is inexpensive, and she feels rooted to the place.
But the house in front of hers now stands abandoned, as does the one behind and another next door. There are only five children left at the kindergarten she manages.
"Sometimes, it doesn't seem worth it to come to work," she said.
On a recent morning, the couple prepared with trepidation to make the hourlong trip to a kibbutz in Israel where Charles is taking a course to work as a lifeguard at Homesh's swimming pool this summer. He strapped on a borrowed bulletproof vest before climbing behind the wheel. She was unprotected.
"We could only find one, and they shoot the drivers first, so he's wearing it," Von Brandis said. "We have to hurry--the escort is waiting for us already a half-hour. I've been dragging leaving, because I am scared and don't want to go."
She will not move from here, Von Brandis said, even though she has said goodbye in the last few weeks to close friends who are abandoning the settlement. Partly, she does not leave because she cannot afford to both pay her mortgage here and rent in Israel. And partly, she stays because she believes "these settlements are truly guarding the rest of Israel."
Instead of leaving, she said, she is going to buy a rifle to carry with her on the roads.
"What do I think of those who leave? What can I think?" said Yossi Dahan, the settlement's secretary. "This is a hard place to live, a beautiful place but a hard place. They are afraid, and nobody protects them. This is a legal settlement, built by the government, and all over the world every citizen should feel that his government protects them. But they feel abandoned, abandoned by [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon."
Dahan, a former paratrooper who lives in another settlement north of here that so far has escaped the violence that has claimed the lives of at least 28 Jewish settlers since September, said his wife has begged him to quit his job in Homesh, but he refuses.
"I feel that these people need me," he said.
Every day, he drives a circuitous route of about 80 miles to make what used to be a half-hour commute. He has been shot at and stoned, Dahan said, but he keeps coming.
He said he is cheered by calls he has received from people saying they are eager to move to the outpost--"five religious families say they are coming next week"--and by visits from fellow settlers who have come to show solidarity with the besieged community.
He worries that another settlement where he works, an artists' colony called Sanor a few miles north of Homesh, is doomed because only nine families remain of the 35 a year ago. But Homesh, he insisted, will survive this crisis.
"These are not fanatics living here," he said. "These are just normal people who believe in their hearts that this land is a part of Israel."