After Gaza, some other settlers ready to move

A group in the West Bank wants Israel to start compensation now.

In the beginning, it was a small checkpoint. Then it became a well-guarded multilane opening. Soon, it became so jammed that Benny Raz had to wait at least a half-hour to enter Israel proper.

And then, he says, he saw the writing on the wall - and realized he was on the wrong side of it. This settlement, although not far from where internationally recognized Israel ends and the disputed West Bank begins, lies east of Israel's separation barrier, finished here in the past year.

Chances are, Mr. Raz says, such settlements will eventually meet the same fate as the 21 evacuated from Gaza.

The aftermath of the Gaza pullout has changed the Israeli political landscape in more ways than one. By demonstrating the feasible, if difficult, option of dismantling settlements, it has brought the likelihood of further withdrawals out of the realm of the theoretical.

That being the case, Raz wants out - and is spearheading a movement to encourage others to do the same. Their proposal: The government should start offering compensation now to folks like Raz, who came to live here mostly because housing was cheaper - thanks to state incentives - and who are ready to leave of their own accord.

That option could allow people to leave civilly, gradually, privately - in sharp contrast to the national heave-ho that Israel is still smarting from after last month's forced withdrawals.

"I don't want to wait two years so the soldiers will come knock on my door and say, 'OK, let's go, Benny. It's your turn,' " says Raz.

$3 billion pricetag

A middle-aged man of Jewish-Iraqi descent, Raz was recently dismissed from his job as a local bus driver for his prominent role in the founding of One Home, a new movement aimed at expediting an exodus of settlers back inside the Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 borders.

The movement has attracted a few professors, retired generals, and left-wing politicians, including one who plans to introduce a bill next month in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It would establish a fund for settlers who have good reason to believe that their homes will eventually go the way of the Gaza settlements.

"Those people who came to settle there didn't come for ideological reasons, and now they're caught in a dilemma. If there won't be a political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, these settlers will be the first target for the third intifada when it starts," says Avshalom Vilan, a Member of Knesset from the left-wing Yahad Party, speaking by phone.

Vilan's proposal comes with a large price tag: some $3 billion to move settlers over the next five years and finance the project over 10 years.

But it's a plan that he says will be less costly than having a repeat of the Gaza withdrawal, which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon completed last week when he handed over the evacuated coastal territory to the Palestinian Authority, with its massive costs of temporarily housing evacuees in hotels.

The current disengagement plan is estimated to cost about $2.5 billion, a bill Israel had hoped it would receive US assistance in paying off.

"The alternative, to wait for an [Israeli-Palestinian] agreement and move the settlers all at once, is more expensive and more traumatic than doing it slowly but surely," says Vilan.

One Home, whose founding members include former senior diplomats, members of the right-wing Likud party, and Dahlia Rabin, daughter of the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated a decade ago this November, says that their polls show that about 30 percent of Jewish settlers in the West Bank would leave immediately if they were offered comparable housing in Israel.

Financially, says Raz, most people have no choice but to stay. The five-bedroom house he bought nearly eight years ago cost $120,000, and now it's worth only $40,000. Being stuck here, he says, makes him feel like "cannon fodder."

While the Israeli government says that Palestinians now have to take steps toward fighting terrorism for any further progress to occur, many Palestinians think Israel's withdrawal from Gaza means that militancy works. The last "legitimate" target, Raz fears, will be people like him.

"I don't want to be hostage to that," he says. "The world says the settlers are stopping peace. So OK, come and help us leave."

Although it is difficult to confirm numbers, few are outspoken about sharing Raz's outlook. Most people here, particularly local leaders, hold to a more traditional line which opposes any withdrawals and views the West Bank as Israel's divinely endowed heartland.

"Benny is a minority of a minority of a minority. Only a handful of twisted people think like him," says Lilian Zeitman, the spokeswoman of Karnei Shomron. "He doesn't really represent anyone but himself and maybe 10 other friends." She says more than 90 percent of settlers here have no interest in leaving and are sure they will remain a part of Israel.

Indeed, the lessons learned from disengagement are summed up very differently by those who hope that the scope of the Gaza withdrawal will never be repeated in the West Bank. To Sondra Oster Baras, for example, who has been living here for 18 years, disengagement was a mistake that "gave a reward to terrorism." To her, proposing a law that would encourage settlers to move is nonsensical.

"I think it's extremely dangerous for people to be putting forward, before we even get to negotiations, that we're ready to give up half the country," says Mrs. Oster Baras, an Ohio native and mother of five. She continues to wear the orange bracelet that symbolizes opposition to disengagement, and says that the community is growing: There's still demand for homes here.

Moreover, she points out, the government is considering plans to move the line of the separation barrier to include this and other area settlements. A Supreme Court ruling here last week made clear only that the barrier's placement was still a matter of dispute, and that it would have to take Palestinian access into consideration.

But like many of the more ideological settlers, Oster-Baras opposes the wall altogether because of the inherent message sent by its architects: Israel will eventually give up control over large swaths - if not most - of the West Bank.

Risky endeavor

Over a cold drink in the small-town shopping plaza here, Raz sits near the shuttered falafel shop that was run by his wife until two months ago. He convinced his wife to close it because he knew that doing business would become intolerable when he went public with his views.

Some of his fellow residents yelled "shame" or spat on the ground when he walked by, some simply started to ignore him. A local rabbi, he says, placed him in "herem" - an antiquated Jewish practice that demands the wayward person be completely ignored, a step short of being excommunicated.

While some sneer or roll their eyes at the sight of him speaking to a reporter in the pizza shop, others come over to offer friendly hellos.

One woman, a cook and mother of four, came here after she got divorced because it was the only place she could afford to raise her children in a house with a garden instead of in a tiny apartment. "There's a great quality of life here," says Leah Livni, "but I'm living on borrowed time."

Raz says he isn't frightened by the community's reactions to his activism: He's received threatening phone calls and jeers, in addition to his recent pink slip. What worries him more is the thought of being yanked out of his home the way the Gaza settlers were - or being stuck on the front lines of the next intifada.

"It was hard to see what happened in Gaza," he says. "and that's why I don't want to get to the same stage."

He also says that living here in recent years, he's begun to have more empathy for what Palestinians go through. For every time he was forced to sit at his local checkpoint for 20 minutes, he says, he was dismayed to see Palestinians waiting at the checkpoint for two hours. "When you open your eyes," he says, "you say, these people are more or less just like me."

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