Israeli community says it will not leave Golan

Neve Ativ residents of Golan Heights are like a page out of America's

Menachem Baruch is shutting down the lifts.

"Alright, close No. 2 and 3," says the manager of the Mt. Hermon ski resort, Israel's only winter wonderland, as the sight of cable cars with legs and skis dangling from them disappears into sky soup.

But Mr. Baruch says he's not shutting down for good. Poor visibility may cut into a day's slalom down the slopes, he says, but politics won't.

"I don't think it will happen," says Baruch, flipping through a rainbow of Venetian blind samples to replace the dingy slats on his windows. While he redecorates as though Israel's future on Mt. Hermon were certain, the newspaper on his conference table tells another story. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa are discussing "all subjects," the front-page headline blares, "including withdrawal."

At this, the northernmost point of the Golan Heights that Israel captured from Syria during the 1967 Middle East war, everyone knows what withdrawal means: Most, or all of the 17,000 Israelis who live here, have to give up their homes.

But just down the mountain in the small, remote community of Neve Ativ, where Baruch makes his home, folks say they're staying put. Neve Ativ, which owns and runs the ski resort, is a moshav, a type of rural village that has some collective enterprises but does not share the communal ideology of the Israeli kibbutz.

At times, the people of Neve Ativ seem like a page out of America's old rugged individualism, hearty types who live close to nature and are financially self-sufficient.

At others, they seem more like the Montana Freemen, a group of mavericks who mistrust the government and the media alike, are well-armed, and say they can't predict what would happen if Israeli leaders try to make them leave their homes.

Golan veterans

Since the 1970s, it refused to be associated with any political movement, cutting an odd and arduous path at a time when agricultural settlements had to buy staples like dairy products from party-run cooperatives in Socialist fashion. Veterans like to tout that they built everything here with their own hands.

The founders came from a single army unit that carried out retaliatory attacks on Arab guerrillas, who were sometimes pursued across the border in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. "Ativ" is an acronym made up of the names of four members of the unit who fell in the line of duty.

Among the 32 settlements in the Golan Heights, residents consistently mention Neve Ativ as the home of the brave - the most adamant about staying, and the most likely to put up a fight in order to do so.

Baruch says that's because the wimps have long gone.

"Neve Ativ is the only village where all the members have the same outlook: They know they're not leaving and will do anything to stay," says Baruch, a brawny, blond man who spent eight years in the Army - five more than mandatory - before coming here.

"A while back, we had a big turnover because we've had economic difficulties. Those who stayed are the independent people who could weather the hardships on their own," he says.

Winter weather

In a good winter, the community profits handsomely from lift tickets and entrance fees, while families run their own restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. In warmer weather, apple and cherry orchards produce some of the best fruit in Israel.

Numbering just 40 families, Neve Ativ is just a small tile in the mosaic of opponents Prime Minister Ehud Barak will have to take on as he tries to muster support for a peace deal with Syria.

More than 100,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Monday night against the withdrawal. Two Cabinet ministers threatened to leave Mr. Barak's government if he agrees to a full withdrawal from the Golan. Recent polls show that public support for such an agreement is slipping, falling to 41 percent last week from 45 percent a month ago.

Tricky deal

Yet in the battle for the nation's nod in a referendum on the matter, Neve Ativ could be a tricky part of the picture. It is, after all, hard to argue with a day of good, clean fun on skis, sleds, and Boogie Boards.

Inside the pricey snack bar, packed with visitors after a weekend of heavy snowfall and news of momentum in the peace talks, some came for what they thought might be their last ski in Israel.

"It's a pity," says Ariella Vouhl, a mother from Haifa, Israel. "But peace is more important," says her husband, Eddy, finishing her sentence. His chin gestures at Yarden and Shani, their twin six-year-olds who have never seen snow before. Sipping hot chocolate, the boy and girl watch their first flakes fall. "We're here thinking of our children and knowing that this means their future will be better," says Mr. Vouhl.

To be sure, nothing irks the people of Neve Ativ more than the fact that many Israelis are indeed ready to relinquish the Golan in return for the promise of normal relations with Syria, Lebanon, and perhaps much of the Arab world.

"The Israeli people are stupid and naive," Baruch sniffs when told of such comments from visitors. "If Farouk al-Sharaa had been willing to shake Barak's hand, we would have been finished."

Even in Neve Ativ, the hard-liners complain that there are too many softies around. Take Yitzhak Tsuela, one of the founders, who complains that the village council has "too many vegetarians" on it, with a side smirk that assures he isn't talking about whether they eat meat.

"They're already brainwashing us. They're fighting a daily psychological war against us in the media," says Mr. Tsuela, a man with a lumberjack physique who supports his family by running a B&B called "Hermon's Peak," growing apples, and designing cable cars for Israeli tourist sites. He and others here won't estimate what it would cost for them to move.

"I'm not calculating anything because I'm not leaving," he says. "We don't want to see the government up here, we don't want their money, and we don't think the US should have to pay for us to go."

Tsuela says that the police have opened a file on him. It was around the time of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, when Israeli authorities were increasing their surveillance of right-wing activists. They planned to charge him with conspiracy to insurrection, he says, but never followed through.

"There is no right and left in the Golan Heights, just people who want to stay," says Tsuela, who voted for Barak out of utter dismay for his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. He wonders aloud if these deep divisions could drive Israel to the brink of civil war.

"I never thought it could happen, but if someone killed the prime minister, everything is possible here," he says. "We've lived in a high place where we don't lock our doors. Now, I feel everything is unstable and no one knows what could happen."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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