Mayor of Ariel Ron Nachman
Mayor of Ariel Ron Nachman stands on the security road between the settlement of Ariel and the West Bank. Nachman is one of the original founders of the now sprawling settlement. (David Gilkey/NPR)

Israeli Settlement Seeks Protection

By Eric Westervelt

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Most every Palestinian in the West Bank says the biggest obstacles to a better economic life are the hundreds of military roadblocks and barriers that separate the West Bank from Israel. Israel's wall and fence project has dramatically reduced suicide bombings and other attacks inside the country. But the barrier, which will stretch some 450 miles when completed, also has had a severely negative effect on the lives of ordinary Palestinians. NPR's Eric Westervelt and David Gilkey traveled the length of the barrier to explore how it has affected the lives of people on both sides.

April 8, 2009 · Ariel is one of Israel's biggest settlements deep inside the West Bank. For the moment, it lies outside the barrier, a fact that its mayor and other local leaders are not happy about. The settlement has become something of an issue in relations between Israel and the U.S., as well.

Mayor Ron Nachman sounds a little like a resort tour guide as he shows off Ariel's sprawling recreation and sports center.

I called it not a barrier. I don't call it a fence. I don't call it a wall. I call Ariel as a 'gated community.' And the whole state of Israel is one big gated community.

- Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank

It's a far cry from the hot August days in 1978 when Nachman led a small group of settlers to found Ariel. Back then, there was no running water and no electricity, just tents on a rock-strewn hilltop.

Today, Nachman is proud of how far Ariel has come -- proud, too, of its Olympic-sized pool, gymnasium, Jacuzzi and more.

"It's beautiful. It's the best in Israel. Not in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, you don't see such a project!" he crows about the sports center.

Much of Ariel's state-of-the-art facility was paid for by donations from American evangelical Christians. It's a move that some find ironic, given that many evangelicals want the Jews to populate the West Bank to fulfill their interpretation of prophecy that sees Jews converting to Christianity on Judgment Day.

The main building of the sports complex was named for John Hagee, in honor of the U.S. evangelical leader.

But rotund Russian Jewish immigrants ignore the apocalypse in favor of the rec center's scenic wooden deck and a light breeze blowing in from the rocky West Bank landscape. More than 9,000 Russian Jews, most of them secular, have moved to Ariel since 1990. Nachman is pleased.

The Israeli settlement of Ariel
(above) The Israeli settlement of Ariel sits on a hilltop deep inside the West Bank, some 10 miles from the Green Line, the pre-1967 war border. The separation fence runs around the settlement but is not connected to the main route of the 450 mile barrier. (David Gilkey/NPR)

"The Russian immigrants here, for them, that's heaven. You know, they never expected to come to a new country and to have such, you know, facilities and leisure. All the project is made from contributions from private people because the establishment doesn't give us anything," Nachman says.

Touring Ariel underscores the enormous obstacles to forging a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ariel is gigantic. It sits some 11 miles deep into the West Bank and is home to nearly 20,000 settlers. An additional 11,000 students attend a local college. There are a hotel and two large industrial parks that include factories for plastics, metalworks and mattresses.

People like Ron Nachman are bringing the end to the two-state solution possibility.

- attorney Michael Sfard, with the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din

Strolling through Ariel's park, with its fountains and walkways, Nachman uses the biblical name for the West Bank and insists the term "settlement" is not accurate.

"This is a city. It's not a settlement at all," he says. "When I was in Orange County [in California] at a press conference, they said to me when they saw the video on Ariel, they said, 'Is that a settlement in the occupied West Bank?' I said, 'No, it is the main city in the region of Samaria.' They say it looks like a new neighborhood in Orange County. When you come here and see then you understand. You see those little kids there? They grew here. They have no idea what is a security problem."

The children don't know real security challenges, he says, because of the fence -- built by the Israeli army -- that now encloses Ariel.

Mayor Ron Nachma
Mayor Ron Nachman walks past fountains and a man-made stream that runs through a new central park in the settlement of Ariel. (David Gilkey/NPR)
An Israel Defense Forces Jeep
An Israel Defense Forces Jeep patrols the road in the security zone separating the settlement of Ariel from the West bank. (David Gilkey/NPR)
Children play in the new central park of the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel
Children play in the new central park of the northern West Bank settlement of Ariel. The settelment features some of the most modern and expansive recreational facilities in Israel. (David Gilkey/NPR)

"I called it not a barrier. I don't call it a fence. I don't call it a wall. I call Ariel as a 'gated community.' And the whole state of Israel is one big gated community," he says.

And gates and fences mark Nachman's preferred solution to the conflict with the Palestinians. He strongly opposes any Palestinian state on West Bank land he believes Jews have a historic and biblical right to control. He says no to peace talks, which he thinks are a waste of time.

Instead, he would like Jordan to eventually oversee Palestinian villages and cities while Israel would maintain security and border controls and continue to expand settlements. Essentially, in Nachman's view, Israel keeps all the settlements but hands responsibility for the Palestinians to Jordan.

"Those stupid politicians. They don't understand the region," Nachman says. "There was no peace before we came, and there will not be any peace after we came. Because the way of Annapolis, the way of the road map, cannot bring peace. The slogan 'land for peace' cannot work."

The mayor shows off the electronic fence topped with barbed wire that encloses most of Ariel. Suddenly, Israeli soldiers approach in a military Humvee; they don't want people walking in this "closed security zone."

But it's good to be the mayor. The soldiers let Nachman and his guests walk on. The fence, the mayor says, has proved essential in stopping sniper fire and hit-and-run attacks from nearby Palestinian villages.

"The Palestinians used to come here, they used to come and shoot our high school. You see the red roof there? Imagine you stand with me here and there is no fence, no nothing. They come, they shoot and they run away. And when they started to shoot at us, we have to protect ourselves," Nachman says

But because of challenges before the Israeli Supreme Court, as well as financial and political factors, Ariel's fence is not as yet linked to the larger north-south barrier that separates the West Bank from much of Israel. Nachman says he hopes Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's new prime minister, makes that happen, instead of dithering as past Israeli leaders have done.

"It is not connected yet to Israel. Now, when something will happen, somebody will have to be responsible for that. I wrote to the minister of defense, I wrote to the prime minister, to the generals. I said, 'Listen, when crisis will come and disaster will be, you will not be able to claim not guilty. Each one of you will be guilty, because you cannot abandon the security of the people,' " he says.

The fact that Ariel is not yet connected to the larger barrier is a rare case of American political pressure on Israel affecting settlement policy, says attorney Michael Sfard with the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. Sfard calls the proposed extension of the fence to include Ariel a "finger."

"The Americans thought that such a finger would be a barrier to a viable, future Palestinian state. The plan is to build the finger. It's just not being done, and it's not being done because of the international pressure, mainly American pressure," he says.

Sfard has done legal battle with Nachman and other settlers many times over the route of the barrier. Sfard sees Nachman as part of a rigid, ideological movement that he says threatens the entire Zionist enterprise of a Jewish homeland by holding on to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, expanding settlements and denying self-determination to nearly 2.5 million Palestinians living there.

"People like Ron Nachman are bringing the end to the two-state solution possibility," Sfard says. "And then we will have to face a different dilemma: that is, between a ... democratic, one-state, binational state, which I'm sure Ron Nachman doesn't want. And the other option, that Ron Nachman probably would support, is a real apartheid!"

Asked about the efforts by Sfard and other Israelis to help Palestinians protest the barrier, Nachman replies, "In some countries, they would have hanged those people by now."

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