High-tech Israeli town spotlights divide over security barrier

Staff Writer

With good schools, quality home construction and affordable prices, Ariel seems to offer everything a young Israeli couple might be looking for.

Home to the Jewish state's largest college, the town of 20,000 people has wireless broadband that allows a computer user to connect anywhere on its quiet streets, a new shopping center and even a state-of-the-art health club.

The only problem is that Ariel is 12 miles inside Israeli-occupied, predominantly Palestinian West Bank. There is a tank on a nearby hillside, and the nearby city of Nablus is a hotbed of Arab militants who would like nothing more than to blow up the Jewish settlement.

"Does that look like a problem to you? This is a great community, a thriving city, and the most high-tech place in Israel," boasts Ron Nachman, Ariel's mayor.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon puts the finishing touches on his plan to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip as part of a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Nachman says he has few worries about such a fate befalling his community.

"There isn't a government in Israel that could survive if it abandoned Ariel," he said, settling back in his office and smiling broadly. "It would be a huge problem for Ariel Sharon."

Ariel exemplifies the challenges and complexities of resolving the Middle East conflict. Two decades of Jewish settlement, representing about three generations of Israeli settlers, now call the West Bank home. They are so rooted alongside Arab towns and villages that devising any fence that could protect them all is impossibile, Israeli officials concede.

As Israel's second-largest settlement, built on land captured during the 1967 Six-Day War, Ariel also poses one of the thorniest issues for the security fence being built along the Jewish state's 437-mile border with the West Bank.

The security fence runs largely along the Green Line, the unofficial border of Israel before it seized the West Bank in 1967. But in some areas, where large numbers of Jewish settlers live, the fence runs deep into what the United Nations and many countries regard as Palestinian territory.

To protect Ariel, the fence will have to jut inside the West Bank for 12 miles, wrap around the town and possibly several smaller settlements, and then come back to the border in a pattern Israeli officials call a "fingernail."

Cutting so far into Arab land doesn't help Israel's image abroad. The government approved a plan last year to protect Ariel on three sides with a narrowly constructed fence, which still would appropriate some Palestinian land. Yet construction has not started, and lawsuits by Palestinians and Israelis have put off a firm completion date.

"Now that it's fairly certain that the fence will include Ariel, I think people here are a lot less nervous," said Dina Shalit, executive director of the city's development. "The fact is that no matter what you call it, people were thinking of it as a border of Israel. So if you're outside that border, you weren't safe. Now that we're inside the border, I think people think we've made it.

"The terrorism here has been hard on everyone; everyone has lost somebody or knows somebody who has lost someone. And we're out here and we're exposed on the roads. What it did do for us was make us more self-sufficient. We built a theater, other clubs. Now you can do practically anything here. You don't have to travel to Tel Aviv."

Security isn't an idle concern for the settlement, which is connected by a series of bypass roads on which only Israelis are allowed to travel. The town's hotel was the scene of a suicide bombing that injured nine people in 2002, and Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded in numerous shootings on the roads around Ariel by Palestinian militants.

But Nachman plays down these concerns.

"This is nothing more than a gated community, just like you have in Fort Lauderdale," said Nachman, whose town draws financial support from Friends of Ariel, a Broward County-based group of evangelical Christian and Jewish fund-raisers who have been hosts to the mayor for speeches in South Florida.

"We all want peace with our Palestinian neighbors, but Ariel isn't going anywhere," he said. "Whether there is a fence or not, Ariel is not going to disappear. We're too big, and too important a city now for anything to be dismantled."

South Florida support for the city is ample. At a fund-raiser in 2003 in Aventura, Nachman spoke alongside U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Other supporters of the settlement include South Florida auto entrepreneur Norman Braman.

In 2003, the Deerfield Beach-based Friends of Ariel raised $890,761 for scholarships, student financial aid and humanitarian needs, according to papers filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

"We couldn't do all that we have done without their support," said Nachman. "The reality is that Ariel is Israel, and these people realize it. And the idea of leaving it behind, after all we've been through, just isn't possible. We can live with our Arab neighbors; we have. But we're not going to relent under terrorism or labels that call us illegal settlers."

Palestinian officials just shake their heads when they hear such talk. If Ariel is Israel, they say, then an independent state of Palestine is impossible.

"I'm not sure how anyone can look at a wall pushing 12 miles into the Palestinian land and not call this apartheid. It's a land grab plain and simple," said Michael Tarazi, an attorney in the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department. "But it's only the most visible example of what this wall is being used for. The plan is obviously to carve up land and annex as much as possible into Israel. That leaves Palestinians on what amounts to Indian reservations."

While the term "settlements" suggests something out of the American West of the 1800s, the reality is that the Jewish settlements of the Middle East wouldn't look out of place in western Broward County. The homes are American size, the streets paved and the yards amply watered. The sheer size of these towns and cities, full of upscale residents who make up powerful voting blocs inside Israel, make any prospect for a withdrawal from the West Bank difficult to contemplate.

While they are often depicted as religiously motivated, many residents in Ariel and other communities are young couples with families who moved to the West Bank because of the generous economic incentives -- low-cost loans, affordable housing -- offered by the Israeli government to do so.

A recent survey of settlers by Ariel's College of Judea and Samaria found that West Bank settlers tend to be younger and better educated and earn higher incomes than Israel's overall population. Politically, most side with Israel's more conservative, pro-settlement parties. But labels can be misleading. Many of the thousands of Americans in the West Bank tend to be well-educated people from New York and New Jersey.

They also tend to have more children, a factor in the explosive growth in West Bank settlement over the past decade. Overall, the number of settlers has grown by at least 130 percent since the early 1990s, to an estimated 230,000 people. More than half of that number may be children or very young adults, Israeli analysts say.

Twenty-five settlements -- 21 in Gaza with 7,000 residents, and four small outposts in the West Bank -- are to be dismantled between July and September under a plan pushed by Sharon. In December, a well-known Jewish settler leader vowed to resist the move, and some are concerned soldiers from settler families might follow suit.

Few Israelis expect a similar withdrawal of large settlements like Ariel from the West Bank. During peace talks in 2000, Palestinian leaders tentatively agreed that any withdrawal plan would leave the larger West Bank settlements intact.

A close aide to Sharon recently said that the Gaza withdrawal would reduce international pressure for any pullout from the West Bank. But the Bush administration has told Jewish leaders privately that it would expect a withdrawal of settlements left outside the security fence.

The country's largest settlement, Ma'ale Adumim, sits just as deeply inside the West Bank as Ariel, though the bloc of 25,000 people is essentially a suburb of Greater Jerusalem. Elsewhere, smaller illegal settlements, some with as few as two or three families, dot the occupied territory Jews call Judea and Samaria.

Building a fence that could protect them all is impossible, especially when construction continues to boom in Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank. Thanks to low-interest loans and government grants, buying homes in these areas is cheaper than living in many larger cities inside Israel.

Many settlers don't want a fence; they fear it would curtail the growth of their communities and forever rule out settling on the rest of the West Bank, which was once part of Eretz Ysrael, the Biblical kingdom depicted in the Old Testament

Daniella Weiss, mayor of Qedumim, a few miles from Ariel, recently moved the community's city hall to a hillside farther from the border. It now sits in a portable building fronted by a steel security fence that was hastily installed. The move, in theory, would force fence architects to build a longer barrier to wrap around the courthouse or abandon the fence effort altogether.

"Once I heard that Sharon is going to build a fence around Ariel, Qedumim, I decided to move the office," said Weiss, who had held fund-raisers in Boca Raton and Miami for the settlement. The money helps pay for infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines to enlarge the settlement, and other amenities like the high-tech security gates at the entrance to Weiss' new city hall. "The moment I heard that Sharon wanted to put it around the area, I decided I'd force them to build it further out. At some point, they're going to realize they can't do it."

A well-known settlement leader who is against the pullout from Gaza, Weiss says she shops regularly in Arab villages and drives on the non-bypass roads used by Palestinians. She is against the fence, and vows to stay in Qedumim even if a Palestinian state is created.

"A fence isn't normal, especially something like they want to build. If we build a fence, it tells them we're afraid, and I think it encourages the people even more who are behind terrorism. They are just going to shoot missiles over this ridiculous structure when it's completed.

"You put up a wall, and you build a wall in their minds. We have to get beyond that, but whatever happens, we're not leaving."

Tim Collie can be reached at tcollie@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4573.

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