/The New Jewish Settlers: Israelis Chasing a Suburban Dream in the West Bank

The New Jewish Settlers: Israelis Chasing a Suburban Dream in the West Bank


ARIEL, West Bank—When the Jewish settlers who founded this town scouted the land in 1978, they chose a rocky outcrop where Palestinian villagers warned nothing would grow. It was called the Mountain of Death.

“They thought we were crazy,” said

Dorith Nachman,

70 years old, recalling the reaction when she, her husband and other Jewish Israelis erected tents on the hillside.

Ariel’s founders used to administer a psychological questionnaire to incoming families to ensure they could tough it out. It wasn’t just the natural environment that was harsh. By establishing Jewish communities on land Palestinians claim as their own, the settlers opened Israel to both domestic and international criticism.

Civilians stand guard in the Jewish settlement of Ariel, circa 1980.


Photo:

Romano Cagnoni/Getty Images

Things have gotten a whole lot easier for Jews living in many of the 132 settlements built on territory Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. A highway now connects Tel Aviv to Ariel, without the military checkpoints dotting much of the West Bank. Real-estate agents pitch it as a Tel Aviv bedroom community for young families. There are parks, malls, a university with 15,000 students and rows of townhouses and apartment blocs priced as much as 30% lower than in Tel Aviv, some 30 miles away.

Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, one of the most emotional issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have gone mainstream among Israelis. Places once viewed with skepticism, if not downright hostility, by other Israelis are now home to 450,000 Israelis, up from 116,300 in 1993. They account for 15% of the total population of the West Bank, which also includes an estimated 2.6 million Palestinians, and 5% of the Israeli population. An August poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 48% of Israelis support a plan by Prime Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu

to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank, by year established

Number of West Bank settlers

Israeli settlements in the West Bank, by year established

Number of West Bank settlers

Israeli settlements in the West Bank, by year established

Number of West Bank settlers

Israeli settlements in the West Bank, by year established

Number of West Bank settlers

Many recent settlers say they are motivated less by politics than by economics and lifestyle. New arrivals to booming settlements like Ariel say they were drawn by ample living space, jobs in local industrial parks, a suburban lifestyle and educational opportunities. As Israel drifts to the political right, settlers have gained power, adding to their feeling of permanence.

Many advocates of a two-state solution deal see the deepening connection between the settlements and the rest of Israeli society as an obstacle to peace, since the Palestinians claim the West Bank as part of a future state.

Much of the international community, including the United Nations, considers all settlement activity to be illegal, and Palestinians cite it as a primary obstacle to peace. Nevertheless, the scattered settlements have become largely accepted by many Israelis as indivisible parts of the country that could never be negotiated away.

Settlements are Jewish towns established beyond the Green Line, the demarcation line between Israel and the West Bank since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Residents are Israeli citizens and live under Israeli law. Under the law, the government recognizes certain places in the West Bank as permissible settlements, and it provides them with ample funding. All other places drawing settlers without government approval are considered illegal. The United Nations and Palestinian officials consider all settlements to be a breach of international law.

Many Israelis draw a distinction between large settlements such as Ariel, which has the backing of the Israeli government and which they would try to keep under a peace agreement, and outposts that are technically illegal but have been supported by the Netanyahu government in recent years.

This fall Ariel became home to Israel’s newest medical school—a rare instance of locating a major institution in a settlement. It is drawing students who have never before set foot in a settlement, including some who never wanted to.

New arrivals to Ariel say they are drawn by more affordable housing options and a suburban lifestyle.

Amit Levi,

26, who is moving from Tel Aviv to attend the school, said she worries about the untested academic program and about possibly losing out on overseas fellowships because of academic boycotts of Israeli settlements, though administrators assure her that won’t happen. She also is afraid Palestinians will stone her car if she drives at night, even though some roads in the West Bank are meant for Israelis only, and most settlements, including Ariel, are guarded by Israeli soldiers and security officers.

She said she was surprised by the diversity of Jewish Israelis living there. “I thought that the people who lived in the West Bank are religious people or ultra-Orthodox,” she said.

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Tomer Marshall,

an educational-technology entrepreneur, moved to Ariel in 2007 with his wife, to a five-room duplex apartment with a view of Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea. Some of their left-wing family members opposed the move, but the decision was driven largely by economics.

“We came here because it’s easier to buy here,” said Mr. Marshall, who now has five children. “It’s so easy to live here.”

Tomer Marshall, who moved to Ariel in 2007 with his wife, Linda, says it is ‘so easy’ to live in the settlement.


Photo:

Corinna Kern for The Wall Street Journal

Many early settlers were driven by a belief that the West Bank belonged to Israel because of Jews’ historic ties to the land dating back to the Bible and that it could serve as a security buffer between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Today, many settlers are seeking a better quality of life and lower housing prices, according to analysis by the Israeli nongovernmental organization, Peace Now, which supports a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and mutually agreed upon land swaps.

Settlements have long been an irritant in U.S.-Israel relations, for both Republican and Democratic administrations, which viewed them as a major obstacle to achieving peace.

The Trump administration views at least some settlements as essential to Israeli security. U.S. Ambassador to Israel

David Friedman,

who was a financial supporter of the Beit El settlement before joining the Trump administration, calls the West Bank by the area’s biblical names—Judea and Samaria—as Israeli officials do. He doesn’t use the term “settlement,” which he says implies they are temporary. “They’re just like every other neighborhood inside of Israel or inside of any other country,” he said in an interview.

Breaking with past U.S. policy, he has paid several visits to settlements, including Ariel, and has said he envisions Israel annexing some of them in the future. He spoke last month at the opening of the Adelson School of Medicine at Ariel University, named after casino magnate and Republican donor

Sheldon Adelson,

who helped fund it.

“One of the problems with focusing on settlements is, from our perspective, it unfairly penalizes Israel on a single issue that doesn’t take into account the reality that there are all kinds of issues that the Palestinians need to address and haven’t addressed,” Mr. Friedman said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, wearing blue tie, attended the opening of Ariel University’s medical school in October, with Sheldon Adelson, seated, and his wife, Miriam, who helped fund it.

Saeb Erekat,

the chief negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the Trump administration is “committed to maximum Israeli control over Palestine, denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination and expansion of Israeli settlements, leading to the process of annexation that we are witnessing on the ground.” Palestinian officials cut contact with the Trump administration in 2017 when the U.S. said it would move its embassy to Jerusalem.

Palestinian officials say Israel’s continuing development of settlements will make it more difficult to create a contiguous Palestinian state.

Mr. Erekat said “attempts at normalizing Israeli settlements have nothing to do with peace but with the perpetuation of conflict.”

Mr. Friedman said Mr. Trump’s long-anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan doesn’t envision uprooting any residents from the West Bank—“either Jews or Arabs.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is currently fighting for his political life after twice failing this year to form a government following inconclusive elections, has made integrating settlements into Israel a signature policy, especially in recent years as support among settlers for his Likud party has grown. He said Mr. Trump’s election offered a “unique and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to move ahead with annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Israeli government has issued more calls for more settlement construction during the Trump administration than it did during the eight years of the Obama administration, according to Peace Now. The population of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is growing 3.5% annually, government figures show, nearly twice the rate of Israel’s overall population, now about nine million.

Three of the five children of Tomer Marshall, an educational-technology entrepreneur, play at their home in Ariel.

Mr. Netanyahu’s government hasn’t interfered with the construction of settlement outposts that are illegal and has approved funds to extend public transportation projects within settlements. In two last-minute campaign promises this year, he vowed to annex settlements in the West Bank and, more immediately, the Jordan River Valley, which makes up one-third of it, without negotiating with the Palestinians or even allies such as the U.S.

Mr. Netanyahu’s main rival for prime minister,

Benny Gantz,

who has until Nov. 20 to form a coalition government, has staked out positions on settlements similar to the premier’s, but has said he wouldn’t act unilaterally.

Israeli courts have forced Mr. Netanyahu to periodically evacuate small illegal settlements. As a lawmaker in 2005, he voted to dismantle Gaza’s settlements and remove its 8,000 settlers, a controversial move he has since said was a mistake.

Some Palestinians who live near Ariel and work in or near the settlement said that Israel’s settlement expansion has degraded their quality of life. They said they experience long waits and sometimes humiliating searches at military checkpoints, which Israel says are necessary to maintain security. Some also said the opportunity to work in Jewish Israeli towns and do business with Israeli customers earned them more money.

“I want a Palestinian state, but it just won’t happen,” said a 38-year-old from Hebron who drives two hours a day to sell power tools near Ariel. “Life here is no life at all.”

Palestinians have said Israeli settlements limit the places where they can live, work and move freely. The World Bank has said Israel’s restrictive border controls in the West Bank are a major obstacle to Palestinians’ ability to boost their economy. Israeli officials have said its controls are necessary to maintain security, and that entrenched Palestinian corruption is the major obstacle to economic growth.

Ariel, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, has been transformed by growth between 1982 and 2018.


Photo:

Peace Now(2)

Ariel sits in the middle of land Palestinians claim for a future state and has become a hub for smaller Israeli towns around it. Most Israeli peace proposals keep Ariel as part of Israel, but some international initiatives call for Israel to give it up.

Ariel’s founding families, many with ties to Israel’s military industries, were motivated by a conviction that Israelis should lay down roots in the West Bank. Its first mayor, the late Ron Nachman, “thought that to prove that we own the land, we have to settle it,” said his wife, Ms. Nachman.

Early homeowners were required to own a residence on the other side of the Green Line in the event that Israel abandoned the land or their homes were destroyed, either because of war or international arrangements.

Dorith Nachman, 70, and her late husband were one of Ariel’s founding families.

The first intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987, helped precipitate the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel. Under that agreement, parts of the West Bank under Israeli control were to shift eventually to Palestinian control, with the fate of the settlements to be negotiated. That never happened. Soon, Israelis came to associate living in settlements with danger, clashes with Palestinians and stone throwing.

For years, Ariel was the focus of disputes over the ethics of settlement building. In 2010, a group of Israeli theater artists boycotted a new performing arts center, which spiraled into a broader international protest. The Israeli owner of Israel’s

McDonald’s

franchise refused to open a restaurant in Ariel, citing a policy against outlets in the settlements.

Its image has gradually changed as more Israelis got priced out of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Ariel real-estate agent

Eli Arbiv

ticks off reasons Israelis move there, almost none of them ideological: “There’s better weather here. It’s a clean city. It has good education. It’s close to the center.”

To be sure, life beyond the Green Line isn’t without tension. Israeli officials have said stabbing and shooting attacks against Israelis have continued, and that Jewish Israeli settler violence against Palestinian residents has increased.

In August, a 17-year-old Israeli girl was killed by an improvised explosive device while hiking near a town about 25 miles south of Ariel in the West Bank. Israeli soldiers are stationed at bus stops and intersections where attacks on settlers are known to have taken place.

But many Israeli settlers say they feel living in Ariel isn’t much different than living in any other Tel Aviv suburb, and they believe the threat of expulsion that once lurked is gone.

A new 840-home neighborhood is under construction after years of delays, and a rail line has been approved to connect the city of 20,000 directly to Tel Aviv.

Settlement supporters see the opening of Ariel’s medical school as an important step in Israel’s development of the city. The nation’s medical-school admissions process is competitive and there is a shortage of spots for aspiring doctors. The new school is drawing students who hope to stay near the center of the country and do fellowships at hospitals that are close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Ms. Levi, the medical student, said she had never been to Ariel before her acceptance and knows no one who lives or studies there.

At first, her mother opposed the move, having heard little about Ariel beyond news about stabbings.

Ms. Levi and her father reassured her that Ariel was just like any other place, with a city hall and a mayor. “It’s a city in Israel,” they told her.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

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