Israelis Not All Deeply Settled In

Times Staff Writer

Ever since they moved to this Jewish settlement from nearby Jerusalem three years ago, Asi and Alice Yehezkel have had a running argument.

He enjoys the desert quiet. She cringes when she hears the Muslim call to prayer and fears for her safety every time she drives through neighboring Arab towns. If he could, he would live here until the settlement swelled into Jerusalem, five miles south, and maybe even as far as Tel Aviv to the northwest. She would rather leave her home to the Arabs.

Asi Yehezkel thinks they belong here. Alice Yehezkel feels like an interloper.


“Being here makes a lot of troubles, a lot of arguments,” Alice said. “I don’t consider myself a settler, because when we have enough money, we will go back to Jerusalem. We only came here because it was cheap.”

Young, thrifty and ambivalent, both the Yehezkels are typical of most Jewish settlers -- less interested in the politics of territorial expansion and Zionism than in low mortgage rates and homes that cost half as much as they would in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Like many of their neighbors, the Yehezkels say that if their moving away from Adam meant the difference between war and peace -- and many here say it does -- they would leave in a flash.

Jewish settlements have long been a cause of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. By strict definition, a settlement is any Jewish community that lies beyond the Green Line, the informal boundary declared after Israel’s 1948-49 war of independence. The boundary of the West Bank, which is not on any official Israeli map, encloses the Palestinian cities of Jenin in the north and Hebron to the south. The Jordan River forms its eastern boundary.

Palestinians say that Jewish settlements and the restricted roads that connect them are chopping up their territory and making their goal of a contiguous state impossible.

Settlers defend the roads, saying they are necessary for their security in the face of attacks by Palestinian extremists.

The “road map,” the peace framework that was recently endorsed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority at a summit in Aqaba, Jordan, called for Israel to immediately dismantle all so-called outposts of settlements created since March 2001. Both sides see the peace plan as a starting point to get into other contentious issues, such as the fate of larger, more established settlements.

Dismantling Ordered

Starting last week, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to dismantle about 15 outposts -- embryonic clusters of mobile homes or other makeshift shelters that signal the intent to create larger towns in the future.

The decision sparked protests by militant settlers at several sites. Some of the demonstrators blocked Israeli army vehicles with stones and their own bodies. The most committed settlers regard the West Bank as their biblical birthright. Even as the government took down 10 outposts last week, settlers installed five new ones.

The difficulty of dismantling such tiny outposts will pale in comparison with the challenge of dealing with large, established Israeli settlements such as Maale Adumim, a few miles from Adam. With 25,000 residents, Maale Adumim looks more like Santa Clarita than anything makeshift.

In the 18 years since its establishment, Maale Adumim has become one of Israel’s most mainstream settlements. It is just a regular suburb, say its residents, many of whom are young families who drive their cars and watch television on the Sabbath -- a day the Torah commands Jews to rest and pray.

The shopping mall, movie theaters, schools, synagogues and community centers get generous government subsidies, meant to encourage such expansion. The government is financing a new road and a tunnel that will run under the Mount of Olives and allow residents to bypass Palestinian towns on their way to Jerusalem.

Critics of the development say that as it grows, it will preclude any possibility of a Palestinian claim to Jerusalem because it will cut off the rest of the West Bank from the holy city.

But that’s not why Dudu and Andrea Alfasi live there.

“We looked all over Jerusalem, but the prices were too high,” said Dudu Alfasi, 39, an accountant who stopped wearing his yarmulke years ago.

When a friend told him about Maale Adumim’s big bedrooms and cut-rate prices, the Alfasis made a visit to the development.

Standing on the balcony four years ago, it was the sight of the Judea Mountains and the Dead Sea beyond that sold them on the place.

The Alfasis love their home -- but, like the Yehezkels, they said they would leave if the government compensated them.

“The policy of occupation is to spread as much as you can to make Israel bigger,” Andrea Alfasi said. “But we are the ones who pay for it. We must live with war, with hatred. I am afraid every day something will happen.”

“If leaving this place was the price of peace,” Dudu said, staring across the sandy valley, “I would move.”

Several recent opinion surveys of Israelis living in settlements have found that there are many more people like the Alfasis and the Yehezkels than outpost defenders. A study published last year by the Peace Now anti-settlement organization found that 77% of settlers cited quality of life as the main reason for living in disputed territories. Only 20% lived in the occupied Palestinian territories for nationalistic or religious reasons.

The same study showed that 68% of settlers would obey the government if it ordered them to withdraw from disputed territories.

‘Dilution’ of Israel

Ezra Rosenfeld of the Yesha Council, an advocacy board made up of settlement leaders, said his group wants to expand settlements “to ensure that there is no Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.”

Rosenfeld said he was concerned about the increasing number of settlers like the Alfasis who are motivated more by economic reasons than expansionism.

“There’s no doubt that the average person in the street is not the Zionist that he used to be -- Zionism is hard to live by in a postmodern world,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe who don’t speak Hebrew or have a Jewish identity. The dilution of Israeli society cannot be ignored. That’s a problem that typifies all of Israel, not just the Yesha.”

Mossi Raz, a former Israeli parliament member who is now the director of the Palestinian Peace Coalition, said that if Sharon was serious about reconciliation, he would stop antagonizing the most radical of the settlers -- the ones who live far from Israel’s metropolitan centers solely for religious reasons.

Instead, Raz thinks the government should create a program that would compensate settlers who choose to come back behind the Green Line.

When he was a member of parliament from 2000 until 2003, Raz tried to pass such legislation, but the ruling Likud Party soundly defeated it.

Regardless of what symbolic statements Sharon makes, Raz said, Israel is still in the business of expanding the settlements.

“In 1995, the vacancy rates in the settlements was 13%. Now it’s 1%. Even in the year 2001, in the middle of the intifada, 13,000 Israelis left to live in the settlements,” he said. “I’m sure they are going more for economic than ideological reasons, but whatever their motivation, they are going to prevent peace.”

Israeli developer Yosi Sassi doesn’t like the intifada. For one thing, it hurts his business, which is to build large settlements. His Palestinian workers, once cheap and plentiful, now get delayed at Israeli checkpoints and reined in by West Bank curfews. He complains about the government’s reluctance to fund new roads, sewer and electric lines, schools and libraries at past levels.

Still, Sassi made $10 million last year building and selling homes in the settlements of Adam, Maale Adumim and Ariel.

“Building houses, that’s my ideology,” said Sassi, clearly proud to be driving around Ariel in his clean white Jaguar. “When the government tells me to stop, I will stop.”

Chuckling to himself, he mentioned his left-leaning sister who opposes the settlements on principle.

“Even she wanted a nice new apartment with two floors,” he said. “She bought a place -- she lived there two years. When her conscience bothered her too much, she rented it out. Now she lives in Jerusalem. But she makes money in the settlement.”