Israeli Settlement Seeks Barrier's Protection
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
This week, we're exploring life along the 450 mile long barrier that Israel is building to separate the Jewish state from the West Bank.
Today, we visit one of Israel's biggest settlements deep inside the West Bank. For the moment, the settlement of Ariel is outside the barrier. Its mayor and other local leaders are not happy about that. And it's becoming something of an issue in relations between Israel and the U.S.
NPR's Eric Westervelt brings us part three of our series about Israel's barrier.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Mayor Ron Nachman sounds a little like a resort tour guide as he shows off Ariel's sprawling recreation and sports center.
Mayor RON NACHMAN (Ariel, Israel): There we have a wet sauna.
WESTERVELT: Hot sauna.
Mayor RON NACHMAN: Yes, that was steam.
WESTERVELT: 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, 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.
Mayor NACHMAN: It's beautiful. It's the best in Israel. Not in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem, you don't see such a project.
WESTERVELT: Much of Ariel's state-of-the-art sport center was paid for by donations from American evangelical Christians. 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.
This day, rotund Russian Jewish immigrants ignore the apocalypse in favor of the rec center's scenic wooden deck, a light breeze blowing in over the rocky West Bank landscape. More than 9,000 Russian Jews, most of them secular, have moved to Ariel since 1990. Mayor Nachman is pleased.
Mayor NACHMAN: The Russian immigrants here, for them, that's heaven. They never expected to have such facilities and leisure. And all the project is made by contributions from private people, because the establishment doesn't give us anything.
WESTERVELT: This is John Hagee building, so this is the evangelical leader…
Mayor NACHMAN: Yes.
WESTERVELT: …John Hagee?
Mayor NACHMAN: Yeah. Yeah. Come, I'll show you.
WESTERVELT: 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 -another 11,000 students attend a college here. There's a hotel, two large industrial parks with dozens of businesses that include factories for plastics, metal works and mattresses. Strolling through Ariel's park with its fountains and walkways, Mayor Nachman uses the biblical term for the West Bank and insists the term settlement is not accurate.
Mayor NACHMAN: This is a city. It's not a settlement at all. When I was in Los Angeles in a press conference, they said to me when they saw the video on Ariel, they say, is that a settlement in the occupied West Bank? I say no, this is the main city in the region of Samaria. They say, you know, it's like a new neighborhood in Orange County. When you come here and you see, then you understand. You see those little kids here? They grew here. They have no idea what is a security problem.
WESTERVELT: They don't know real security challenges, the mayor says, because of the fence, built by the Israeli army that now encloses Ariel.
Mayor NACHMAN: 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.
WESTERVELT: 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 an historic and biblical right to control. He says no to peace talks, they're a waste of time. Instead, he'd like Jordan to eventually oversee Palestinian villages and cities, while Israel would maintain security, 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.
Mayor NACHMAN: Those stupid politicians, they don't understand the region. There was no peace before we came, and there will be no peace after we came because the way of Annapolis, the way of the road map, can never bring peace. The slogan land for peace cannot work.
WESTERVELT: How long did it take to build this fence? How many years?
Mayor NACHMAN: Less than a year.
WESTERVELT: The mayor shows off the electronic fence topped with barbed wire that encloses most of Ariel. Suddenly, Israeli soldiers approach us in a military Humvee. They don't want people walking in this closed security zone.
Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)
WESTERVELT: 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.
Mayor NACHMAN: This is the military post because the Palestinians used to come here and shoot our high school. You see the red roof there?
WESTERVELT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mayor NACHMAN: Imagine you stand with me here and there is no fence and no nothing. They come, they shoot and run away. When they started to shoot at us, we had to protect ourselves.
WESTERVELT: 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 the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, makes that happen, instead of dithering, he says, as past Israeli leaders have done.
Mayor NACHMAN: 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. I wrote to all the people, the generals, and say, 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.
WESTERVELT: 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.
Mr. MICHAEL SFARD (Attorney, Yesh Din): The Americans thought that such a finger will 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, but mainly the American pressure.
WESTERVELT: Sfard has done legal battle with Mayor Nachman and other settlers many times over the root 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.
Mr. SFARD: Well, people like Ron Nachman are bringing the end to the two-state solution possibility. And then we will have to face a different dilemma and that is, between a one state, democratic one-state, binational state - which I'm sure Ron Nachman doesn't want - and the other option, which probably Ron Nachman would support, is a real apartheid.
WESTERVELT: Asked about the efforts by Sfard and other Israelis to help Palestinians protest the barrier, Nachman says, in some countries, they would have hanged those people by now.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News in the West Bank.
NORRIS: And you can see a map of Israel's barrier in the West Bank, including the seam zones, that's at our Web site, npr.org. Tomorrow, we wrap up our series with a report about how the barrier has affected one Palestinian in the city of Bethlehem.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.