SA-NUR, West Bank (Jul. 5)
A dry wind blows in the 98-degree heat, flapping the blue tarpaulin covering the make-shift tent camp where mothers stir pots of onions and potatoes over small stoves while keeping an eye on young children splashing a few feet away in a plastic pool. Welcome to a neighborhood set up by some 25 families who have come to the northern West Bank settlement of Sa-Nur to help reinforce its numbers ahead of its planned evacuation by the Israeli government.
Sa-Nur and three other Jewish settlements in this narrow corridor between the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin are to be evacuated, along with the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip, beginning in mid-August.
The northern West Bank settlements have received less media attention than the Gaza settlements, but some speculate that they could become a surprise hot spot during the “Disengagement Summer.”
As anti-withdrawal activists find it increasingly difficult to enter Gaza because of planned military closures in coming weeks, they may turn their focus here. Furthermore, many of the most militant members of the settler movement live in the northern West Bank region and could pour into Sa-Nur and other settlements slated for evacuation, such as nearby Homesh, in a bid to thwart the plan.
The other two area settlements slated for evacuation, Ganim and Kadim, are not expected to be problematic to evacuate. Most residents of those secular settlements already have left or say they intend to leave before the withdrawal begins.
Tamar Ettinger, 30, a pregnant mother of five, has brought her family to the tent camp at Sa-Nur. They sleep in canvas tents and cook and wash outside, but the issue for them is ideology, not comfort.
“If we want to live here we have to build, to strengthen the settlement,” says Ettinger, her blue eyes shining brightly from a face flushed from the sun. She wears a long dark dress and an olive-green headscarf.
“We did not come here to fight with anyone. It’s our land and our right to settle it,” she says.
Ettinger, who came a month ago from the nearby settlement of Kedumim, says she hopes others will arrive to reinforce their numbers.
At a nearby table, Irit Frankel, 41, grates carrots surrounded by several of her seven children. They sit on an assortment of plastic chairs and tattered couches and armchairs. Nearby are dirt bikes Frankel’s children have brought with them from Kedumim, two refrigerators and an outdoor sink. There also are outdoor showers and toilets.
The Frankels also have been here for a month, leaving behind their spacious, two-story house in favor of an airless tent cooled by a single fan and lit by a dangling light bulb. They brought blankets, cooking utensils, food, clothes and board games, which are piled in stacks on plastic shelves in the tent. The tent’s only decoration is a small poster of Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. naval analyst jailed for spying for Israel.
Sitting on one of the beds with her sisters is Nehama Leah Frankel, 16. She recently returned to Sa-Nur after spending several days at a hotel in the Gaza Strip with a group of some 150 right-wing activists. The hotel was evacuated last week in an Israeli army raid.
Her thick chestnut hair worn in a single braid down her back, Nehama Leah speaks proudly of her role in the struggle against the withdrawal plan.
“We want to show them that the land is important to us and cannot be taken so easily,” she says. “This is about the Land of Israel, because it’s ours and we have an obligation to defend it.”
Irit Frankel says that everyone who believes the withdrawal must be stopped is obliged to take part in the struggle against it, however they can. As a mother with young children she couldn’t go out into the streets to demonstrate, she says, but she could move her family into this tent camp for the summer to make a statement.
The families in the tent camp have joined an unusual mixture of residents in Sa-Nur. Twelve artists, most of them senior citizens from the former Soviet Union, live alongside a group of about 40 young religious couples who began settling here in trailer homes about two and a half years ago, at the height of the Palestinian intifada.
Yossi Dagan’s trailer is about a five-minute walk from the new tent camp. Dagan, 24, is the leader of the group of young people who came to Sa-Nur to help bolster the settlement, which had been almost abandoned amid the Palestinian violence.
Today, including the residents of the tent camp and a group of yeshiva students from the southern West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, some 250 to 300 people live in Sa-Nur. That makes Sa-Nur one of the fastest-growing communities anywhere in Israel, the West Bank or Gaza Strip, Dagan says.
Pulling out a map of the northern West Bank, Dagan says, “Sa-Nur prevents Arab contiguity between Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm. This protects Israel from Kassam rockets and other long-range weapons.”
Dagan feels betrayed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who, he says, used to bring busloads of people from Israel to see how strategically important the area is.
Because of the northern West Bank’s significance, Dagan says, Sharon is trying to keep the public’s attention diverted to the evacuation of the Gaza Strip settlements.
“He is trying to hide us by not talking about us,” Dagan says.
On Tuesday, Sharon made a rare appearance at a Knesset discussion, giving right-wingers a chance to assail the government over allegedly poor planning of the upcoming withdrawals.
For at least one Gaza settler, coming face-to-face with the man who long was the settler’s champion was emotionally overwhelming.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you used to call us ‘Salt of the earth.’ You would say, ‘I love you, you are dear to me,’ ” recalled Naomi Eldar, a teacher and mother of six from Gaza’s Gush Katif bloc.
Bursting into tears, she asked: “Is this how you treat people who are dear to you?”
But increasingly violent protests have only boosted mainstream Israeli support for the pullouts.
“Anyone who thinks the disengagement will not be implemented because of such-and-such maneuver or legislation is mistaken,” Sharon said in remarks carried live by Israeli media.
While backing the settlers’ right to demonstrate against the plan, Sharon pledged “zero tolerance” toward extremists who recently have mounted violent protests on Israel’s highways.
Sharon moved to mollify settlers who fear the pullbacks will leave them, effectively, refugees.
“There is a solution for anyone who wants it,” he said, as aides prepared a slide show on the alternative housing being prepared in Israel for evacuated settlers.
Dagan, for his part, remains optimistic: He thinks thousands of anti-withdrawal activists will move into Sa-Nur and thwart attempts to evacuate them.
Dagan also is encouraged by the situation in Homesh, which also has seen a population surge with the recent arrival of several dozen religious families. At a steady pace they have been fixing up houses — some of which have never even been lived in — and setting up their new homes.
During the intifada, four Homesh residents were killed on the road that leads to the settlement. About half of Homesh’s 70 families moved away.
Among those left behind were Vladimir and Rita Rokovchik, who immigrated to Israel in 1990 from Moscow and moved to Homesh three years later. They came here because it was the only place they could afford a house with a garden, they say.
When Rita Rokovchik’s father was shot and killed by a Palestinian along the road to Homesh in 2001, she was determined to leave — but she and her husband were unemployed and couldn’t afford to move their four children.
Now they say the government has failed to send officials to discuss compensation packages. They’re open to moving, but only for compensation that would allow them to buy a home inside Israel — and the $150,000 they’d receive wouldn’t be enough, they say.
Vladimir Rokovchik says he has been pleasantly surprised to see so many new neighbors moving in recently.
“It’s suddenly completely full, and now there’s a swimming pool and a day care center,” he says.
Life seems to have returned to Homesh, the Rokovchiks say — but they don’t know how long it will last.
JTA Correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.