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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 August, 2003, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Israeli settlers who seek way out

By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online in Jerusalem

In the second of a series of articles examining attitudes among Israelis towards the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, BBC News Online's Raffi Berg explores the views of secular settlers who want to leave.

Sally and Eliezer Wider were seeking a better quality of life when they decided to move to the West Bank in 1990.

They sold their three-bedroom house in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba and bought a six-bedroom home in the settlement of Tene Omarim, just 20 kilometres (12 miles) away, for $100,000.

Eliezer Wider
The Widers say they are desperate to move back to Israel
They got financial help from the government, in the form of a $90,000 loan, initially at a preferential rate - one of a number of concessions offered to families wishing to move to the settlements.

For years the Widers lived happily in this growing, secular close-knit community and never looked back.

But, in 2000, life for Jewish settlers in the West Bank fundamentally changed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and for some it became too hard to bear.

"Before the intifada it was silent here, it was good, we didn't have a problem with the Arabs," Sally said. "But after the intifada, we heard shooting all the time."

Empty homes

As the dangers and the cost of living increased, the Widers decided it would be best to leave the West Bank altogether, so they put their house on the market.

SETTLEMENT INCENTIVES
Cheap loans for housing
Reduced rates for leasing state land
Free kindergarten tuition and transport to school
Low income tax
As the number of attacks on settlers by Palestinians seeking to drive Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza escalated, migration to settlements slowed and the Widers found they could not sell their home.

Earlier this year, their anxiety turned to desperation when Palestinian gunmen fired 40 rounds at the family car.

No-one was hurt, but the event so traumatised Sally that she is receiving psychiatric help and sometimes believes her son, Ron, was killed.

"We want to move out and forget this period of time," Sally said. "We don't care, we just want to rent a house in another place. Later we will discuss compensation."

Across the road from the Widers' house stands a row of identical-looking red-roofed houses with terracotta-coloured walls.

No-one, they point out, has moved to the settlement since the houses were built four years ago and the properties remain empty.

Financial help

About half the 225,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank are secular, most of whom, like the Widers, chose to live in settlements mainly to improve their quality of life, rather than for ideological reasons.

JEWISH SETTLEMENTS
Widely regarded by international community as illegal under international law according to Fourth Geneva Convention (article 49), which prohibits an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory
Israel argues international conventions relating to occupied land do not apply to West Bank and Gaza because they were not under the legitimate sovereignty of any state in the first place

The cost of living is cheaper than in Israel, while the government offers a range of incentives to encourage people to move to the settlements.

These include cheap loans to buy properties; reduced rates for leasing state land; free kindergarten education and transportation to school; and lower rates of income tax.

Government grants to local Jewish councils in the West Bank also far exceed in per capita terms grants to local councils in Israel.

The Israeli group Peace Now, which campaigns against settlements, says the government should provide as much assistance to people wishing to leave the West Bank as it does to those wishing to move there.

"The government should open a way for settlers that want to leave the settlements right now, to open for them any kind of channel of assistance to leave the territories and to go back to live within the Green Line," said Peace Now general secretary Yariv Oppenheimer.

'Fearful'

According to a recent survey by Peace Now, nearly 30% of settlers questioned said they wanted to leave but could not sell their homes.

PEACE NOW SURVEY
83% of settlers would leave for compensation
36% of settlers would fully obey an order to leave
29% of settlers would leave straight away
Telephone survey of 1,100 people, July, 2003
The study also suggested more than 80% of settlers would agree to leave the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for compensation, but just 36% would obey an order to evacuate without any kind of resistance.

It said they were reluctant to speak out and organise themselves into a pressure group through fear of being branded traitors by those on the right.

The Yesha Council - an umbrella group of local and regional councils in the West Bank and Gaza - dismisses Peace Now's findings.

"I don't believe this report because no-one is stopping the settlers from moving," said Yesha spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef.

Ghost town

However, some settlers - usually those who can afford to buy a second home - are finding ways to leave.

In Adora, a settlement 6km (3.7 miles) west of Hebron, about 80% of the inhabitants have moved away in recent years.

Anat Harary
Anat is one of a few remaining settlers in Adora
In some parts, rows of abandoned houses stand basking in the sun, their windows boarded up, their occupants long gone.

"In the beginning, people moved here for the view," said resident Anat Harary.

"It was very peaceful, like a magic place on the hillside. People came from all over Israel, it didn't matter if they voted for the right or left."

Adora did not attract ideologues, and when the intifada broke out many in the community felt it had become too dangerous to stay.

Anat identifies closely with this. Last April, she was shot through her window by a Palestinian gunman dressed as an Israeli soldier.

The attack frayed her nerves and she has not had a full night's sleep since.

She says given the opportunity, many secular settlers would leave.

"There are two kinds of settlements," she says. "The Jewish kind and the Israeli kind.

"The Jewish kind have many ideals and it will be very hard to deal with them politically, but the Israeli kind - people like me - it depends how much money you can offer them, but the bottom line is they will be happy to move."


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