Ariel, WEST BANK — Deep in the heart of the Israeli-occupied territories, this settlement of nearly 20,000 residents is enjoying a building boom like never before. And the signs of it are everywhere.
At the eastern edge of Ariel, construction of a new hospital, complete with its own medical school, has entered the final stages. Across from the huge complex, a new shopping center has started to sprout up. On a hill that overlooks the main population center, ground is about to be broken on a new neighborhood that will include 839 housing units — the largest project of its kind in many years. And several kilometers to the west, at the Ariel industrial zone, new factory construction, following a period of stagnation, is under way.
The locals have no doubt who deserves all the credit. “During the Obama years, everything here was frozen,” notes Daniel Kohavi, one of the original Ariel settlers. “But thanks to Donald Trump, we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Previous U.S. administrations viewed settlement activity as a major obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Not this one, though.
Which explains why Mayor Eli Shaviro is feeling far more emboldened these days to discuss future plans. “In 15 years from now, Ariel will be a city with 100,000 residents,” he predicts, “three times as many factories, a huge university with a medical school, and many many young families looking for good education, employment opportunities and quality of life.”
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Until now, all the construction in Ariel has been concentrated on a swath of land that filled up just one quarter of the total area under the municipality’s jurisdiction. The new neighborhood of 839 housing units will for the first time in the city’s history be built outside it — as good a sign as any that a new era has indeed dawned.
It is one of the biggest settlements in the West Bank, fourth in population size, to be exact. And it is one of the most remote settlements — located almost 20 kilometers beyond the 1967 border — but not the most remote. Still, among the big settlements, it is the most remote, and among remote settlements, it is the biggest. Which is why Ariel, often likened to a finger on the map, has long been a key obstacle to any future peace accord.
It was 10 years ago that the last serious round of peace talks was held between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. At the time, Israel presented a map for a two-state solution that included Ariel on its side of the border. The Palestinians rejected the notion, saying it violated two of their core principles for any agreement based on land swaps: They would only consider handing over settlements situated near the 1967 border, and even then, only settlements that did not interfere with the territorial contiguity of the future Palestinian state.
Aware of such problematics, the Geneva Accord of 2003, a civil society effort of prominent Israelis and Palestinians, stipulated that Ariel should remain on the Palestinian side of the border.
As the city celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, the consensus here is that this isn’t going to happen — certainly not anytime soon. “There’s absolutely no chance,” proclaims Shaviro. “Any talk about such a possibility is completely irrelevant.”
For years, notes Kohavi, the settlers of Ariel lived under the threat that one day, they might be forced to leave. “If in exchange, Israel would have signed a sustainable peace agreement, then I believe that most people here would have agreed to go without a fight,” says the 71-year-old former gym teacher. “We are a city of law-abiding citizens, after all. But today, it seems to me there is a consensus in Israel that Ariel is not going to be returned.”
Kohavi, his wife and three children were among the original 40 families that moved here in August 1978. “We were told that a new agricultural settlement was being built in Samaria and that each family would receive 4 dunams (1 acre) of land,” he recounts. “What awaited us upon our a arrival was a tiny box of a house, 46 square meters in area (495 square feet), with an itsy-bitsy garden outside. But who complained?”
What prompted him and his family to leave their comfortable home in the seaside town of Herzliya for an isolated settlement without any running water or electricity? “Good old Zionism,” responds Kohavi.
The original group of Ariel settlers was made up largely of employees of the country’s two large military companies — Israel Aircraft Industries (now Israel Aerospace Industries) and Israel Military Industries. Kohavi didn’t work for either, but had heard about the plan to form a new community in the Samarian hills from his father-in-law, then a union leader at Israel Military Industries. “I loved the idea,” he recalls.
Among the first Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Ariel took root soon after the right-wing Likud assumed power in Israel. The document that paved the way for its establishment, however, as locals like to point out, was signed a few years earlier by Shimon Peres, when he served as defense minister in the Labor government.
The early pioneers, like Kohavi, had no connection to Gush Emunim, an Orthodox, right-wing movement considered the driving force behind the settlement enterprise. Rather, they were secular Israelis, often supporters of the Labor party.
“We didn’t even have a synagogue here at first,” recalls Kohavi over coffee in his spacious three-story home — a dramatic upgrade from his humble beginnings here.
The next wave of settlers he describes, in rather derogatory terms, as “Zionist by default.” These were Israelis, he explains, who were less driven by idealism and more by the possibility of obtaining relatively cheap housing fairly close to the center of the country. They were followed in the 1990s by a very large group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who now account for close to 40 percent of the population. About 10 years ago, Ariel received its first big infusion of religious residents when a contingent of settlers evacuated from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip moved in.
You can uproot a settlement, not a city
During the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which erupted in the early 2000s, the population of Ariel hardly grew at all. Excluding natural population growth, Central Bureau of Statistics figures show that during that period, when traveling on West Bank roads was often perilous, more people moved out of the settlement than moved in. The population only started to rebound about five years ago.
In 1998, on its 20th anniversary, Ariel was officially recognized as a city, and in 2012, following years of controversy, the college established within its perimeters several decades earlier was finally accredited as a university.
Shabtay Bendet, an anti-occupation activist, notes that these were two hard-won achievements for Ron Nachman, one of the original founders of Ariel who served as mayor from 1985 until his death in 2013.
“Nachman invested huge efforts in normalizing this settlement and making it seem part of Israel proper,” notes Bendet, head of the Settlement Watch team at Peace Now, an organization that has long advocated for a two-state solution. “Most places in Israel don’t get recognized as cities unless they have 20,000 to 30,000 residents. Ariel became a city when it had just 11,000 residents. Why was this so significant? Because maybe you can uproot a settlement, but you don’t uproot a city. The same holds true for the university. Why was it so important for him to get it accredited? Because when a place has a university, that means it’s established — no pulling it out of the ground.”
Just how badly Ariel wants the rest of the world to ignore its problematic location is evident in its municipal website. The English version describes its geographical setting as “the heart of Israel,” the Hebrew version taking it a step further, using the term “the heart of the State of Israel.” Since Israel never annexed the West Bank, that is a clear misrepresentation of the facts. Indeed, even the current Israeli government, the most right-wing in the nation’s history, does not claim that Ariel or any of the other West Bank settlements are part of the State of Israel.
Of the 45 plants located in the Ariel industrial zone, about a five-minute drive out of the city, Achva is among the largest. A manufacturer of halva, tahini and sweets, this privately owned company, with an annual turnover of about 200 million shekels ($54 million), exports to the United States, Canada and South Africa. To enable further growth, it is now building a second factory, just across the way from its existing premises. Of its 235 workers, about half are Palestinians from nearby villages.
Originally established in Tel Aviv almost 90 years ago, Achva relocated to the West Bank in 1997. “We moved here because it was the cheapest place close to the center of the country,” says Yaakov Malach, the CEO and owner.
Responding to international calls to boycott products made in the Israeli settlements, a growing number of companies operating in the West Bank have moved back inside the country’s internationally recognized borders in recent years. Malach says he has no plans to relocate again and describes the boycott movement as “more of a nuisance than anything else.”
“The only thing customers really care about,” he says, “is whether something tastes good or not.”
Still, he does not flaunt his controversial location. The timeline of key events published on Achva’s website suffices with the following description of its 1997 relocation: “The factory, which has been based in south Tel Aviv and Yehud, moves its facilities to a spacious building that brings all the production lines under one roof.” There is no mention of where that spacious building is. The mailing address is listed as Nes Ziona, a town in central Israel.
Yuri Smirin, Achva’s production manager, left St. Petersburg in 1990 and has been living in Ariel ever since. Asked if he was worried that the city where he lives and works could one day be handed over to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal, he responds: “Not at all. This area has no future without the existence of Ariel.”
Guiding visitors on a tour of the plant, he points to a group of Palestinian workers huddled around a machine. “Just look at them,” he says. “You see how they’re all smiling.”
Actually, they’re not.
Bendet is a relatively recent convert to the Israeli anti-occupation movement. In his previous life, as a religious settler, he spent quite a few years living not far from here in the small settlement of Rehelim. That gives him some firsthand knowledge of how Ariel impacts the region.
“By creating a buffer between the northern and southern parts of the West Bank,” he says, “it makes any future Palestinian state unviable. But besides that, it is also causing damage in the present because its continued expansion impinges on the ability of the surrounding Palestinian villages to develop and grow.”
But won’t the Palestinians in the area at least benefit from the new medical center, which officials in Ariel insist will serve the population of the entire region? Bendet laughs at the suggestion. “For Palestinians to enter Ariel, they need a special permit from the Israeli Civil Administration,” he notes. “Do you think that someone in the throes of a heart attack is going to stand in line at the Civil Administration offices to get that permit?”