Why Settle for Less?

Trapped in what some call a 'detention camp,' Jordan Rift Valley residents are talking about the compensation they hope will come with the next disengagement.

As everyone knows, there are "ideological" settlers and "quality-of-life" settlers. A meeting with residents of the settlement of Ma'aleh Ephraim, in the western Jordan Rift Valley, revealed the existence of a third group: the "life-is-rotten" settlers. Many years ago, when they were young and beautiful, they were captivated by the idea of a house with a red roof and a green garden at a bargain-basement price.

Since the intifada, especially the second one, these homes have become detention facilities, one of the women sitting in Yehudit Krinsky's garden said. Yehudit related sadly that if we had just come a bit earlier, we would have seen that she has the last green garden in the settlement. Despair has deprived the residents of the desire to cultivate their surroundings. The last vestiges of the quality of life that drew her here are the size of the living room and the number of rooms in the house. Their industrial zone is largely deserted, she explained; more than half the people are unemployed, and relatives and friends are infrequent visitors. There is not even a doctor. No wonder, then, that the spacious homes have plummeted in value. The neighbors across the way, someone said in an unconcealed tone of envy, recently sold their villa for a paltry $37,000 and vanished.

Residents cannot afford to make the payments on the mortgage and start anew. They are aware of the bonanza enjoyed by the Yamit evacuees in the 1980s and they followed with covetous eyes the saga of the Gush Katif evacuees. They hope that one day they, too, will be evacuated.

'A living grave' There was not even a murmur of protest when the guest at this gathering, MK Avshalom Vilan (Yahad-Meretz), told them, as though revealing a secret, that just a couple of days beforehand Dov Weissglas, the prime minister's close adviser, promised in a closed forum that the Gaza disengagement would not be the last of its kind from the territories. (It later turned out that this remark was made in the hothouse of Avital Geva in Kibbutz Ein Shemer( "I finished with the political lies on Yom Kippur [in 1973], when I lost my friends who defended the Golan Heights settlements bodily," Vilan said emotionally, adding that Israel Galili, the influential minister in the Golda Meir government, had explained then that he had sent the settlers there in the hope that by doing so, "we would decide the border.?

When Nissim "Chino" Duanes, formerly the Ma'aleh Ephraim council head for 20 years, said he heard from politicians that there would be a tradeoff the West Bank settlements in return for Jerusalem someone muttered, "with God's help" and people nodded in agreement. "It is preferable that we prepare for that day," Chino said enthusiastically, "so that we will not be like the people in Gush Katif, who listened to rabbis who promised them that there would be no disengagement and are now living like beggars. We have to trust only ourselves and ensure that the compensation will be reasonable and maybe better.?

Vilan, one of the founders of the One Home association, which is sponsoring an evacuation-compensation law for the settlers living on the eastern side of the separation fence, has visited a large number of settlements in the past few months. This week, for example, he visited Teneh-Omarim. (He was surprised to hear there that among the evacuees from the Gaza Strip settlement of Morag, who had just joined them, there were several families of Yamit evacuees.) All the meetings were held in virtual secrecy- 10 embarrassed settlers here, a dozen ashamed settlers there.

In Ma'aleh Ephraim, Vilan encountered for the first time a large group of men and women, more than 100 residents, from a settlement that numbers fewer than 400 families, who convened to hear a left-wing Knesset member, a Meretz kibbutznik, who is out to dismantle their settlement. (The "hard core" - the religious residents - were not invited.) Nor did those present hesitate to speak in the presence of a journalist and a photographer.

They nodded in agreement when Vilan related that in a meeting with representatives of One Home, President Moshe Katsav said that their initiative was reducing the government's bargaining power in the negotiations with the Palestinians. I asked him, Vilan told the group, whether it was moral to turn people into bargaining chips.

Dafna, a woman in her 40s with a determined look on her face, asked for the floor. "I don't want anyone here to talk to me about ideology," she said. "I have had enough with living in holes. For 17 years I have been buried here. This is a living grave. When the children were small we had extra-curricular activities, but now that is all gone and so is our livelihood. The last time we got back from a vacation in Jerusalem, I said, 'Welcome to the Ma'aleh Ephraim detention camp.'"

Employment worriesSitting in the front row of plastic chairs was Meron Mansour, with silver hair and shorts. He is a bereaved father. "I lost a son in a terrorist attack. I have one son left and I don't want to lose him, too," he said, and asked whether it would be possible to apply the evacuation-compensation law to Ma'aleh Ephraim and whether there was any chance that the amount of compensation would be increased if the left wing were one day to return to power. Vilan smiled. "I do not agree with those who say that the right can evacuate territories and the left can pay." A woman named Ilana asked how they would make a living. "Everyone here is at least 50 - where could we find work now??

Benny Raz, from the settlement of Karnei Shomron, who came with Vilan, said that he would never allow himself to be anyone's hostage and that he would not keep quiet, even at the price of losing his livelihood. He said that in the wake of his activity in One Home, he has been unemployed for the past 11 days, after the head of the local council in his settlement dismissed him. "If we do not look after ourselves, no one will look after us, not the prime minister and not the defense minister. A few days ago [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz visited Karnei Shomron and promised us a fence. I have learned not to be impressed by politicians' promises. Don't agree to a situation in which 10 percent of the settlers will decide the fate of our children, who do not know what the future holds for them. You don't want them knocking on your door in a few years, [saying] 'the government put us here, now the time has come for it to get us out of here.??

Vilan explained patiently that the compensation, under the bill he is going to submit at the end of the month together with MK Colette Avital (Labor), would make it possible for Raz to buy a house in the Ashkelon-Kiryat Gat area or in Afula. The lawyers who prepared the evacuation-compensation law for the Gush Katif settlements calculated that reasonable substitute housing for the 20,000 settler families that live on the other side of the separation fence would cost about $3 billion. If that is stretched across a 10-year period, it comes to $300 million a year, which is an amount the state can definitely cope with.

When Vilan came to subject of the amount of compensation per family -$150,000 for an average house people began to sweat and exchange glances with their neighbors. The whispers quickly turned into voices of protest. "A sum of $150,000 is an absolute disgrace, it's disgusting," a young woman in the second row exclaimed. She was seconded by Ezra, in the front row: "With that amount of money you can buy a stable. It's better to stay here and wait another two-three years.?

Red-haired Anat added: "I am dying to escape from this place, but I am not about to live on welfare in the city. For 15 years I have been paying off a mortgage on a house that is worth nothing. If I leave here now, I would be shooting myself in the foot. I don't want to get rich, but at least let them give us an amount that will make it possible for me to live in a detached house, like here.?

You won't find a sign declaring that "A Jew does expel a Jew" on her porch; she promises to welcome the evacuation team with flowers and cookies.

Ami, who is about 50, volunteered to interpret the idea that it was all a question of timing and compensation in other words, that evacuation would raise the price of the bargaining chip: "Everyone knows that when the government wants to evacuate territories it is ready to pay more," he said dryly. "If we ask to leave now, we will be in an inferior bargaining position." Ayelet agreed, curtly: "If they need us as a bargaining chip, they will not give us compensation.?

Vilan wiped away perspiration from his forehead. "You have to understand that something has changed: Either this region will be evacuated as a result of negotiations, or the danger on the roads of the West Bank will increase," he said, trying to win them over.. "It is legitimate to decide to stay here and wait for a solution, but don't expect anyone to give you a house in the coastal plain or in Jerusalem. If you say that you will not leave this place with less than $300,000, the public will tell you to stay here.?

For a few minutes it seemed that the man with the microphone was not an opposition politician, but a representative of Sela - the organization in charge of the administrative side of the Gaza Strip evacuation - who had come to get those present to sign an evacuation-compensation agreement.

On the way out, after we had taken leave of the guest, Ezra said in a loud voice that he is "not in the least afraid to stay here"; someone else mumbled "big-shot hero.?

Vilan said that in the latest survey conducted by his association, 53 percent of the settlers said that what had attracted them was quality of life and cheap housing. Thirty percent said they were ready to evacuate in return for financial compensation. If those people, whose quality of life and value of their homes were vitiated by the intifada, were to stand up as one with the demand to return "home," the next disengagement will be a lot easier.