March 30, 2006
Settlers See Grim Future
Devorah Meitlis walks up a wind-swept hill leading to the small clubhouse-turned-polling station in this West Bank settlement, hoping her home here will still exist by the time of Israel's next election.
Tuesday's vote, seen as a referendum on Israel's future presence in the West Bank, shows that the public has forsaken its settler population, Meitlis said.
"Everyone is against us," the 38-year-old social worker said bitterly.
The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza last summer, and Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to withdraw from isolated settlements like Avne Hefetz by 2010, haunts the settler community. The disappointment -- not just with politicians but with the public itself, for supporting future withdrawals -- is pervasive.
"There is the feeling that what happened before could happen again. People will have to rethink what will be," she said.
According to Olmert's plan, Israel's West Bank security fence would become the country's final border. Tens of thousands of settlers who live on the eastern side of the fence would be evacuated.
Though the settlers represent only about 3.5 percent of the Israeli population, they traditionally have commanded political influence beyond their numbers. The relatively smooth withdrawal from Gaza led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon changed their status in a society increasingly convinced that continued control of the West Bank endangers the Jewish state's demographic future.
Avne Hefez, a community of about 1,000 people perched in the rocky hills west of the Palestinian town of Tulkarm and its surrounding villages, could be one of the settlements removed.
Residents said they hope any plans for future withdrawal will be foiled. In the meantime, several admitted they had postponed plans to renovate or expand their homes.
Bright orange banners of the right-wing coalition formed by the National Union-National Religious Party were wrapped around the green metal gate leading into the settlement, and were strung across basketball court fences and walls.
Most settlers said they were voting for the coalition and other right-leaning parties. But they were doing it with resignation, not enthusiasm, realizing that their political voices had been muted since losing the battle to keep the Gaza settlements.
Further isolating the settlement community was the demonstration at Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost where settlers and Israeli security forces clashed violently in February, leaving 200 people injured.
Settlers say they were "fooled" by Sharon, who reneged on previous statements that settlement areas would always remain in Israeli hands. In past elections they voted for him, campaigned for him and in the end felt betrayed both by him and by a country that seems committed to his path. Sharon has been in a coma since an early January stroke, and the mantle of leadership has passed to his deputy, Olmert.
Bumper stickers and T-shirts with the slogan "We Won't Forgive and We Won't Forget" could be seen throughout the settlement.
Some vowed to battle not only with words but with fists if the army is sent to evacuate the settlement.
"We'll fight," said Yanai, 35, a security guard at the settlement who offered only his first name.
"It will be a much more serious struggle. I will not be hugging any soldiers," he said, referring to the Gaza withdrawal. "We will fight to the end."
The settler movement appears to be at a crossroads. Its older generation still hopes for some sort of understanding with the government, but the younger generation -- politicized by the struggle to save the Gaza settlements -- is impatient and has lost faith in the political system.
Neria Damti, 18, a yeshiva student, said he voted for Baruch Marzel, a radical right-wing activist from Hebron. Marzel was a member of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset in 1988.
Damti is baffled by the Israeli public's support for Kadima, the centrist party founded by Sharon and now headed by Olmert.
"They're blind," he said.
He boasts that he and his friends will be among the first to defend West Bank settlements.
"It could become violent," he said.
Ahuva Sheelo, spokeswoman for the Samaria Regional Council, said Israelis' exhaustion with politics explained their readiness to give up large portions of the West Bank.
"This is not the country it used to be when people were prepared to die for their beliefs, their ideology and their party," she said. "Today people are looking for a golden calf that will make life easier."
Lior Gelber, 41, who was shot and injured by Palestinian terrorists while driving with his wife in 2002, said that if the government decided for withdrawal in a democratic way, he and his family would have no option but to leave.
"Even if it's painful, we'll need to accept it," he said.