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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 22:33 GMT
Tempers flare over settler beauty contest
By Matt Prodger
BBC, Jerusalem

Miss Samaria contestants
The beauty contest was accused of tarnishing the girls' purity
Jewish settlers are used to being at the centre of controversy.

Their mere presence in the Palestinian territories is considered illegal by much of the international community, and they have been in the headlines Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate them from Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

But an event that took place in the West Bank on Saturday has had tempers flaring between the settlers themselves.

It was a simple beauty pageant called Miss Samaria - a competition to find the prettiest teenager in the settlement of Ariel and surrounding areas.

Those beauty contests, it makes them cheap, it makes them stupid
Religious settler

Twenty finalists competed in bikinis and high heels for a contract with a Tel Aviv modelling agency.

The organiser, local photographer Avner Auster, was determined to press ahead despite opposition from more religiously Orthodox settlers.

When he started advertising his beauty contest the posters did not stay up for long.

They were ripped down by religious settlers angered by what they saw as indecency.

"I've had some unpleasant reactions from religious people," he said.

"A guy came into my shop and told me I should stop. He said I'm not keeping Israeli girls' purity.

"My reaction to that was an unpleasant one which I won't go into, but after that I told him: you live in Immanuel, I live in Ariel. I'm not telling you how to live your life. Don't tell me how to live mine.''

Religious divide

Ariel is a secular settlement built on occupied land in the West Bank, but nearby are smaller, more Orthodox settlements.

One of them is Immanuel, deeply religious and ideological.

The settlement has been attacked by Palestinians opposed to the presence of Jewish settlers on occupied land.

Residents of Migron settlement, near Ramallah
More Orthodox settlers disapprove of the Ariel pageant
The people here are armed, suspicious, and deeply unimpressed by Ariel's celebration of the female form.

Twenty-five-year-old Nava Vili came here from Miami.

She is not shocked by beauty contests, but she did not come to the biblical land for them.

"It's too much. The religion doesn't support all this nudity, and bikinis and all that. I think it's humiliating for a woman to do that.

"When she's with her husband, it's for her husband, but when it's open like that for everybody ...people don't want to see it. You have to respect people in this area."

Her friend looks the part of the stereotypical settler: an M16 on his shoulder, skullcap on his head, and distrustful enough of the media to refuse to give his name.

"This is what religion's against. It's not chauvinism, it's not extremism. Taking a girl like that and putting her naked on a stage... that's not beauty anymore. Those beauty contests, it makes them cheap, it makes them stupid."

'Dream come true'

The beauty queens of Ariel are dismissive.

Miss Samaria contestants
The girls say they have the right to do what they want
Two Russian-born 16-year-olds, Tanya and Moriel, are annoyed by the reaction of the religious settlers.

"They're not doing the competition, we're doing it and if they don't like it they don't need to come.

"I think they're wrong. We're not religious, and we have the right to do whatever we want. I don't see anything bad in what we're doing. We're just making our dream come true that's all."

The controversy over this beauty contest is a long way from Israel's political arena.

But Ariel Sharon's plan to remove some settlements has reignited the debate within Israel about the occupation of Palestinian territory and the role the settlers play in it.

Divisions within Israel are more than skin deep.

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