Patriotism, Pragmatism Motivate Settlers
Their move into occupied territories fuels controversy
TEQUOA, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK — ALEKSANDER NYEMENOV makes an unlikely Jewish settler: a diffident and bespectacled metallurgist, clad in baggy shorts, he looks very out of place sitting in a prefab hut behind rolls of barbed wire on a stony hilltop south of Bethlehem.Unlike most Jews who choose to live in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Nyemenov's reasons for coming here were scarcely ideological. Arriving from the Soviet Union on Jan. 23rd, six days after the first Gulf war Scud landed in Israel, he chose this isolated settlement because it was far away from the missiles' target, Tel Aviv. "We thought that this place was the safest place at that time," he explains. His friend Binyamin Ginodman, a Leningrad high-school headmaster, was more deliberately Zionist in his decision to settle in Tequoa last December. "The question of settlements is a very important one for the state of Israel," he says, "and I feel myself guilty. My friends were here fighting all the wars while I was a teacher in Moscow. So I want to do something important and difficult now." His neighbors, Vladimir and Julia Sosinsky, came on both political and pragmatic grounds. "Firstly, I don't see any difference between Tequoa and Tel Aviv," Vladimir says. "We consider the whole territory ... our country. And secondly, apartments are too expensive in Jerusalem." The Sosinskys pay 360 shekels ($150) a month for their three-room prefab, about a quarter of the rate for the same space in a modest Jerusalem neighborhood. The presence of new Soviet immigrants in the occupied territories has become a particularly sensitive issue as Housing Minister Ariel Sharon spearheads an unprecedented settlement drive that coincides with the wave of immigration. US Secretary of State James Baker III has called the settlements the main obstacle to his Middle East peace initiative. Before receiving a $400 million housing loan guarantee from Washington earlier this year, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy had to pledge that "Israel's policy is not to direct or settle Soviet Jews beyond the green line" of Israel's pre-1967 borders, and that "no special incentives exist to encourage Soviet Jewish immigrants to settle beyond the green line." But Israeli government officials from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir on down insist that the immigrants become Israeli citizens on arrival, and thus have the same right to live anywhere in Israel - including the territories - as any other citizen. While the government does not direct new immigrants to particular areas, it does fund a number of Hebrew-language schools in the territories which critics say encourage immigrants to live there. At the same time, the relatively inexpensive housing acts as a natural incentive for cash-strapped immigrants. A US State Department report estimates that 3,000 Soviet immigrants who arrived last year settled in the West Bank and Golan Heights, while 5,830 moved to Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Those figures, seen as conservative, suggest that 5 percent of the immigrants choose to live in the occupied lands, including Jerusalem. But the report points out that the 3,000 in the West Bank and the Golan make up about 20 percent of 1990's growth in settlement population. Some settlements, such as Ariel, one of the largest, are making active efforts to recruit immigrants. Most new arrivals prefer to move to the large settlements within easy commuting distance of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, rather than the more closely knit, religious rural settlements. Tequoa, Nyemenov says, is now home to over 15 new Soviet families - a high number for such a small community. And, at the edge of the settlement, on newly leveled ground, stand 20 mobile homes. By August, Sosinsky says, 20 more Soviet families will have moved in.