West Bank settlements become havens of Israeli surburbanites
Growth driven less by ideology than by middle-class economics could strain peace talks.
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"I had this moment of 'Wow, that's how the world sees me,' " Shelly says in a conversation in her airy, not-yet-unpacked living room, where she's rounding up her kids to do back-to-school shopping.Skip to next paragraph
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"I came here for more space and a good community, but I had to realize that I was doing something politically that many people don't agree with."
Forced to give it more thought, she realized that her outlook didn't clash with living here: "I'm not one that says we should get rid of the Arabs; I so completely disagree with that attitude. I've always supported a two-state solution. But I don't think it's really going to happen.... [I]t became clear to me [after the Gaza rocket attacks] that giving away land and cutting back our borders is not the answer."
One thing about the rapid growth in Tekoa is surprising. It lies outside the security barrier, or separation wall, that Israel has been building since 2002 to keep suicide bombers out of Israeli cities. The popular perception is that settlements beyond the wall are more likely to be evacuated in a peace deal, whereas those inside the wall would be annexed. For that reason, buying a home in a settlement would seem to be risky business. Anyone considering such a move knows that many of the 8,000 Gazan settlers evacuated in August 2005 are still living in temporary housing all over Israel.
SHLOMIT AND BOAZ COHEN, HOWEVER, say they've hardly given their investment in a five-bedroom home in Tekoa a second thought.
"We've never really talked about it," says Boaz, a counselor at a school in a nearby settlement. "I'm a man of faith. God will decide what he decides."
Shlomit, a research psychologist, has a similar outlook: "It's not that [an evacuation] couldn't happen, but it's not a question that occupies our thoughts."
They have plenty else to be busy with – in particular, two toddler girls, and another child due in a few months. They're in the middle of trying to move in, but quite a bit of work is left to be done, which means negotiating with the team of Palestinian workers putting the final details on the house.
Shlomit grew up in nearby Efrat, a large established settlement where her parents and a host of siblings and cousins still live, and where she and her husband rented for three years waiting to find a house to buy. As such, they're part of the much disputed "natural growth" trend.
"It was very important for us to be close to our parents," says Shlomit.
What does worry them is the threat of a total settlement freeze, including natural growth: The Obama administration has insisted on a total freeze – a prerequisite Palestinians have set for renewing peace talks. It's clear that the US views all settlement growth as an impediment to peace.
"I don't quite understand the point of a settlement freeze," says Shlomit. "There are so many people having kids and they need new classrooms. People like us want to be near family. To stop natural growth is impossible, and I hope Netanyahu won't give in to the pressure to do that."
But there are expectations that a freeze is coming: Netanyahu says he hasn't issued new tenders since his government came into power in March, but on Sept. 7 he gave permission for more than 450 new homes in various settlements. About 2,500 places in 700 buildings already under construction will be exceptions to the freeze, which Netanyahu proposes to last six months. Those with a permit in hand are rushing to start building before it's too late.
"People are worried that if you don't start now, all building will be stopped," Shlomit says. "And if you hurry up and start now, you have a chance that they'll let you finish."•