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http://www3.haaretz.co.il/eng/scripts/article.asp?mador=4&datee=5/15/01&id=119439

The fraud of natural settlement increase

By Daniel Ben Simon

There is a considerable degree of political autism - fraud even - directed at the domestic and international communities in Israel's official moaning about demands for a freeze on settlement activity in the territories.

It is hard not to be impressed by the apparent sincerity in the wails of utter despair with which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres are responding to the universal plea for this freeze.

First, everyone knows - most especially Sharon and Peres - that only compliance with this request can possibly reduce or even end the murderous madness that has taken hold of Palestinians and Israelis over the last 12 months.

Second, if the Israeli public only knew the utter falseness of the slogans chanted in such persuasive tones about the need for humanitarian aid to the settlements because of "natural increase" - maybe they would emerge from the cocoon of indifference they presently inhabit.

In the past few months, I have intensively surveyed the settlements and have observed at first hand the distress in which the settlers find themselves. It is hard not to feel pity for the way of life imposed on them since the start of the Intifada.

Anxiety and depression plague parents in these settlements, and fear and stress stalk children who have been evacuated from classrooms at which mortars have been fired. When they leave their homes, the settlers can never know for certain whether or not they will return in one piece.

Brigitte Shoshan, a resident of Rafiah Yam will not send her twin boys, aged six, to school. She had looked forward to the day she would accompany them to grade one. Then mortar shells fell on the school in the Habesor region and she canceled their early registration there. Instead, she registered her sons with the state religious school in Neveh Dekalim. A few days later mortar shells hit the school in Neveh Dekalim. That was when she decided not to send them to school at all. "I want my sons alive," she says.

Alongside the settlers' distress is something else - a gradual trickle of settlers who are sick of this kind of life. Some of the "emigres" are relocating permanently, others have done so temporarily "until things blow over."

This trend is particularly noticeable in settlements of the northern Gaza Strip. Nearly half of the 15 houses in Dugit stand empty. A new neighborhood in Nisanit looks like a ghost town. It's the same in Elei Sinai. The government has built more than 100 cottages with red tiled roofs in Pe'at Sadeh - only 15 families live there and some of them are already planning on leaving.

One local resident, Shlomo Kadosh, says he and his neighbors are waiting for the government to offer compensation payments for those who decide to leave. Another settler, Kfir Avrahami, adds: "Just give these people compensation and not one of them will remain in Pe'at Sadeh."

In Kfar Darom, where more than 30 families used to live, less than 10 still remain. The others left even before the disturbances began and their homes look like monuments of political megalomania.

In Morag, in the southern part of Gush Katif, despite the insane atmosphere all around, construction work is being completed on a synagogue. Given the current rate of "emigration," it is almost certain there will not be enough male residents left in this community for a minyan (quorum) for prayer services.

Even in Neveh Dekalim, whose inhabitants define themselves as "ideological settlers," dozens of families have already registered their children with educational institutions in Ashkelon and Ashdod - a preliminary measure before the transfer of the entire family to a home inside the Green Line.

In the settlements of the Jordan Valley, the situation is just as bad. Last summer, before the riots, the kindergarten in Naama shut its doors because there were not enough children of kindergarten age left in the community. Many of the residents of Fatzael, Netiv Hagedud and Yafit are making plans to cross the Green Line into Israel. One inhabitant of Fatzael reports that, in the wake of the disturbances and in view of the uncertainty about the settlement's future, Fatzael's population has been reduced by half.

New villas were built in Yafit and their owners were supposed to occupy these homes by Rosh Hashana - however, the Intifada broke out, changing the entire situation. As a result, the homes are now empty shells. One owner complains he has been unable to rent out his six-room villa despite the ridiculously low rent he is asking - less than 200 dollars.

Considering the freeze the security situation has already imposed on the settlements, it is hard not to lose your temper when you hear all the nonsensical talk about the danger of a freeze on the settlements. Not only are the settlements "frozen," they have already lost many of their inhabitants.

The government can perhaps continue to deceive the world with the argument that the construction work in the settlements must continue to meet the needs of natural increase - but the Israeli public has the right to know the truth. The settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip contain thousands of empty homes.

American intelligence sources cite the figure of 20,000 unoccupied housing units. Nonetheless, construction work in the settlements has not stopped for even one second and even assumed mammoth proportions during Ehud Barak's regime. For whom are these empty homes intended and what possible political logic justifies the wasteful spending of millions of dollars?

If the government really had the country's best interests at heart, it would do the only sensible thing and would, of its own volition, freeze the settlements. By doing so, the government would be giving a clear message to the West and to the Arab world that Israel is sensitive to what happens outside its borders. After making such a decision, perhaps the government might just recover some of the sympathy Israel has already lost.


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