New arrivals fight West Bank plan

Ideologues hoping to block the Aug. 17 evacuation are setting up camps in small towns.

Canvas tents on a basketball blacktop look out to an idyllic valley lined with olive groves, giving this Jewish settlement slated for evacuation an air of summer camp.

But it is actually a makeshift neighborhood for newcomer families of religious ideologues who hope to block the Israeli withdrawal from this artists' village, one of four emaciated secular settlements in the northern West Bank that the government wants to abandon next month.

"When there is a basis of faith, the path is clearer," says Irit Frenkel, who moved to Sa-Nur last month with her seven children, some clothes, blankets, and kitchen utensils. "We didn't establish this country to expel Jews from their homes."

Viewed from the ancient Samarian slopes of the West Bank, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan looks different from the exit from Gaza's sand dunes. Because the communities being evacuated contain barely 500 residents, compared with Gaza's 8,500, these withdrawals look like an afterthought. But the evacuation, which Israeli officials said Sunday would begin on Aug. 17, will nonetheless create a Palestinian district 2-1/2 times the territory of Gaza and signal Israel's willingness for future concessions in the West Bank.

Once a launching pad into Israel for suicide bombings by militants based in the cities of Jenin and Nablus, the northern West Bank has quieted since Israel sealed off the region with a security barrier of fences, concrete walls, and barbed wire. On Sunday, Israel's cabinet said the completion of the barrier in Jerusalem would close off the city, leaving some 50,000 Palestinian residents separated from neighbors, jobs, and schools. The proposed barrier will include 12 crossing points between the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Security handed to Palestinians

In the northern West Bank, the redeployment is expected to dovetail with Israel's military handing over security responsibility to the Palestinians in Jenin. Opponents of the withdrawal warn that it will give militants breathing room to stockpile rockets that could be fired over Israel's West Bank security barrier, threatening the sprawling metropolis in central Israel.

"You'll be creating a terror state that would threaten most of the country with Kassam [missiles]" said Yossi Dagan, a resident at Sa-Nur who moved here three years ago. "Sharon is trying to make the people forget about the northern West Bank. It's easy to market the withdrawal from Gaza. When the people realize the danger in withdrawing from northern Samaria, they'll decide to call it off."

Dagan has overseen a month-long influx at Sa-Nur of about 25 families, a badly needed infusion into the colony that until three years ago was populated only by a handful of aging Russian artists who arrived at this settlement in the 1980s and early 90s.

Like the other three West Bank settlements slated to be abandoned by the end of the summer, Sa-Nur withered over the course of the five-year Palestinian uprising. Isolated by in a hilly region which gave an advantage to gunmen from neighboring Arab towns and villages, its residents once required military convoys to travel to and from their homes.

Just down the road is Homesh, which has also been bolstered by an influx of religious residents after a series of terrorist attacks several years ago prompted an exodus of families. Further north in two settlements just outside Jenin, financially struggling settlers have been waiting for years for compensation that will enable them to leave - but they have opposed allowing newcomers who would challenge an evacuation.

"It's not coincidental that the northern West Bank was selected because it is the most sparsely settled," says Yossi Alpher, the former head of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. "You couldn't evacuate an area the same size [elsewhere] without having to move a lot more settlers."

The expert said the parallel withdrawals were necessary to reassure the Palestinians and the international community that Israel considers Gaza and the West Bank as part of one political entity.

Despite the small number of settlers, the evacuation in the West Bank could be more difficult than in Gaza. Reinforcements from other ideologically fervent West Bank settlements are only a short drive away. And the military will have to put up more roadblocks in the West Bank than in Gaza, which is surrounded by a border fence.

Founded as an artists' village on the grounds of a prison originally built by the Ottoman Turks, Sa-Nur residents once hoped that they could cooperate with neighboring Palestinian villagers to attract tourists. But since the violence began five years ago, many have become critical of the peace negotiations.

'Our duty as Jews'

A restored stone citadel now houses a museum brimming with works of art containing overt political messages. A sculpture entitled "negotiations" shows a bowl of Molotov cocktails on a table with one chair broken and the other chair with nails sticking up from the seat. Another sculpture depicting the divide among Israelis over the withdrawal shows a piece of fabric fraying at the seams, held together by crude staples.

Julia Segal, an artist and curator of the museum says the arrival of the religious families has eased the artists' isolation. "Now I feel like I have an older brother and he is standing over me."

Below the museum in the tent neighborhood, peals of laughter mixed with the splashing of children playing in a giant swimming tub. Next to it is the communal outdoor kitchen: two refrigerators, a sink, and several picnic tables.

In the Frenkel family tent, 16-year-old Nechama shows visitors a "room" separated by sheets draped over a cord. The tent absorbs heat from the powerful Middle Eastern summer sun, bringing the temperature inside to a stifling 102 degrees F. But the less than ideal conditions don't bother her.

"If it's an issue of the last stage, before the Arabs take over the region, then the idea is to hold out for as long as possible," she said. "It's our calling as Jews in the Land of Israel."

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