Settlers trickle out of West Bank

Yafit, West Bank

Avner Pinker is reconsidering his loyalty to the once indomitable Jewish settlement movement. The anguish Mr. Pinker - and other Israeli settlers - experience as they drive through the West Bank is beginning to take a toll.

"My children know that when we get to Al Ouja, it's time for them to put their heads down," he says of the nearby Arab oasis town known for its stone-throwing attacks.

Other roads have become deadly shooting traps for friends and neighbors, Mr. Pinker says. "The butterflies are constantly in my stomach," he says.

He is weighing whether to join some 8 percent of the settlers from the 18 settlements of the West Bank's strategic Jordan Valley area - which abuts the border with Jordan - who have moved away due to security concerns and economic malaise since the beginning of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

A total of more than 50 out of about 600 area families have left, local authorities say. Yafit, which has lost nine of its 34 families, and several other tiny settlements are fighting for their lives. The largest one, Tomer, remains intact and proud of its durability.

The flight from the Jordan Valley and from other small, secular, remote outposts of the West Bank is hardly a mass exodus. It does not reflect the situation in larger settlements or ideological ones, some of which have even grown. But strong supporters of settlement activity acknowledge the flight as a worrisome trend, a threat to Israel's territorial claims, and also a challenge to the idea that Zionism is about holding one's own and redeeming the land in a hostile environment.

Peace Now, Israel's largest peace movement, predicts that the trend will spread to stronger and larger settlements.

"There is a difficult situation in the Jordan Valley, which we will have to overcome for both Zionist and security reasons," says Michael Eitan, a member of the Knesset who is spearheading lobbying efforts on behalf of the faltering settlements. According to the settlements' governing body, Yesha, there are 150 settlements, housing 207,000 people. The settlements have been built - in contravention to international law - on territories Israel occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The areas are home to more than 3 million Palestinians, whose territory has been deliberately disjointed by the colonies.

As is often the case, Israel's government is of two opinions over what to do about those settlements that are withering, with hawks in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud party demanding that they be infused with subsidies and accorded more army protection. Doves point to the departures as evidence that the settlements are a costly burden.

Asked last week whether settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be evacuated, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told the Maariv newspaper: "Yes, and I would not be doing the Palestinians a favor. There are several settlements which are drawing fire and have no future."

But Mr. Sharon, who as a Likud minister constructed many of the settlements in accordance with an expansionist ideology of Greater Israel, is unwilling to discuss the removal of any of them. He says he would like to bolster the Jordan Valley settlements, some of which are among the oldest in the West Bank, and that he envisions them as the nuclei of a 10 to 20 kilometer "security belt" that Israel will retain in perpetuity to protect itself.

But in Yafit, there may soon be no one left for the army to secure. In recent years, many of its residents made their living off the traffic that traversed the desert highway that links Jerusalem to northern Israel. Last year was supposed to be one of major growth for Yafit. A road-stop restaurant was expanded, a gas station was opened, and there were plans for a motel.

But because of Palestinian ambushes, there is hardly any traffic on the road. The gas station has been closed, and the investors backed off from the motel idea.

"Things have simply died, everything is dead. There are still a few buses, but they have almost no passengers," says Tamir Shlomi, secretary-general of Yafit.

The real blow came on Aug. 7, when Zohar Shurgi, a pillar of the settlement, was shot dead by Palestinians while driving home from work near Tel Aviv. Shurgi had been one of the most committed to enduring the adversity of the Palestinian uprising. He would tell friends that he would remain in Yafit even if it was transferred to Palestinian rule.

"He was a real Zionist believer, and he projected strength," says Pinker. "When he died, it hit really close to home. It was frightening."

Several families packed up and left. Shurgi's wife and children moved back inside Israel to the coastal city of Ashdod.

"It's very tough for the children. We used to have 30 kids in Yafit, and now we have 17," says Pinker. "Their friends are gone. The house across from you is empty, and the kids ask you, 'Where has everyone gone?' "

Yesha leaders say the troubles in the Jordan Valley do not detract from the overall strength of the settlement movement. "There are a few weak places, but the overall sense is one of victory," says spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef. "The rate of growth at the settlements is down compared to last year, but the important thing is that they are still growing during a period of war."

But Peace Now believes the next venues for flight will be larger non-ideological settlements, which face the same problems of dangerous roadways but have thus far been less vulnerable because of their stronger economic and social base. "It's just a matter of time before the aggregate tension breaks up these bigger places," says Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez.

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