(Ha'aretz article on Shavei Shomron and Revava)

Because They Can

By Avihai Becker, Ha'aretz, Tuesday, March 19, 2002 Nisan 6, 5762 (Photo by Nir Kafri)

Shavei Shomron's newest neighborhood: 18 homes sold in the last three months The new neighborhood in the western section of Shavei Shomron had been deserted for over three years. Thirty spacious residential units waited in vain for buyers, and since none were to be found, construction in many cases was halted, roofs began to fall apart, and the abandoned lots became overgrown with weeds. What prompted the sudden change in attitude that has brought about the sale of 18 homes in the settlement during the past three months, of all times, after they had been written off as a lost cause?

Even Aryeh Ofri, chairman of the settlement's secretariat, has no explanation. "It's beyond me," he says. "In my sweetest dreams, I expected to sell a maximum of six or eight homes. After years of continuous growth, last year we hit a slump that was not caused by the intifada, and didn't begin with it, but which was definitely affected by the security situation."

For the first time in its history, Shavei Shomron ("Returnees to Samaria"), established north of Nablus by the Gush Emunim settler movement in 1978, found that more people were leaving than joining, the community structure was unraveling, and its younger residents, who were the first to react to the crisis, were only trying to find a way to bail out.

Shavei Shomron now has 110 families, and is defined by its veterans - who today are 55 years old - as a religious-traditional community settlement in the spirit of Bnei Akiva [the religious Zionist youth movement].

"We had got into a kind of rut," says Ofri, who served in the past as the head of the Samaria Regional Council. "We, the founders, were quite depressed. We heard from more and more people that buying a house in Shavei Shomron, no matter what the price, meant throwing away money, because it's outside the map of settlement blocs that will remain in the area of Israel in the event of a final settlement."

Since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the eastern gate of the Shavei Shomron, which is only a few meters from the settlement's kindergarten, has become a busy terminal from which convoys go up to Mount Eval; tanks and armored personnel carriers are stationed literally at the fence. Ofri longingly recalls the period, when the Palestinians from the village of Nakura still accepted their new Jewish neighbors as Divine fate.

"More Jews than Arabs attended the funeral of their mukhtar [village head], who was killed in a traffic accident. His wife, who was pregnant with her sixth child, fell onto hard times, and we gave her food and supplies," he recalls.

After the outbreak of the uprising, the unsupervised hike to Mount Eval during which Benyamin Herling, rabbi of the settlement of Kedumim, was killed, started out from here. Last November, two residents of Shavei Shomron were shot from a passing car: Teenager Shimrit Hibi was severely injured, and her father, Yair, was slightly hurt. While she is convalescing, the family is living in Netanya.

But at this time of crisis, when the danger of terrorist attacks is mounting, the atmosphere here has suddenly changed. Lights which were extinguished have been turned on again. At the recent Purim party, the community's reception hall was full - clear evidence of a reawakening. Many families who haven't participated in the settlement's social events for a long time were in evidence.

Data of the Central Bureau of Statistics reveal that despite Palestinian fighting and terrorism, the settlement movement on the other side of the Green Line did not cease in 2001. There has been a sharp decline in the rate of growth, when compared to the period before the intifada, but there are still more people moving in than leaving. On second thought, it's not really surprising: As the country has become increasingly threatened by terror, with nowhere to which to escape, potential settlers who are in any case believers in the idea of a Greater Israel, see the settlements as being no more dangerous than Netanya and Afula, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A shot in the arm

The founding group of Shavei Shomron included 17 families, who came from Netanya and settled at first in an army camp that then served new recruits in the Artillery Corps. Over time, the settlement grew, the army base moved to Shivta in the Negev, and three years ago, in the few buildings that remained, Rabbi Yehoshua Schmidt established the Birkhat Hatorah yeshiva, to which Ofri attributes the change in the settlement.

"The moment the yeshiva became established, it had the effect of a shot in the arm for the settlement, like a sonic boom," he says. "It created faith in the future of the settlement, it aroused us to return to the basic values which brought us here in the first place. I think that in terms of ideology and faith, these young people are much stronger and more dedicated than we were when we came to live in Shavei Shomron, and before that in Sebastia. They are our opportunity."

In addition to those who welcome the yeshiva, there are also those residents who, in private, are less enthusiastic and say they fear that the group will become too dominant. They feel that if that happens, the openness that characterizes Shavei Shomron will disappear, and the tendency toward ultra-Orthodoxy, of which there are already signs, will further increase.

Inspired by the rabbi, a native of Kiryat Arba, the yeshiva students have bought eight residential units in the new neighborhood, but it is obvious that their effect on the community goes beyond their contribution to the revival of the real-estate market. Schmidt and his students are the revitalizing element in Shavei Shomron, aside from the fact that the yeshiva is a reservoir of potential husbands, a fact that should not be taken lightly.

"We came not only to study Torah, but to give support to the generation of parents, to propel the settlement forward and to influence it," says Haim Eyal, who, with his wife Havi, a native of Shavei Shomron, was the first to come to live in the empty row of houses. They married exactly a month ago. At first they wanted the wedding to take place in the settlement, but they were immediately convinced to drop that idea.

"Forget about it," they were told, "if you want a wedding that nobody will attend, make it here." The ceremony took place in Nes Tziona. Three months earlier, on the day of the Eyals' engagement party in Petah Tikva, Shimrit and Yair Hibi were injured.

The present mission of the yeshiva is to double the number of young students in Shavei Shomron within a year. "When we go out to recruit new students, and suggest that they come for a Shabbat in order to see what it's like," says Eyal, "the response, especially in the settlements, is good. But when parents in Kfar Sava, for example, hear `Shavei Shomron,' even though they know it's a big mitzvah [good deed] to be here, they forbid their righteous children to come."

Fear keeps people away; they are unwilling to come even in an armored bus. If a refrigerator breaks down in Shavei Shomron, the only solution is to take it down to the coast; technicians long ago stopped coming here to service appliances. "You should try not to have problems with the appliance," they advised the newly married Eyals when they bought a washing machine in Petah Tikva.

Haim Eyal is 20, a third-year student at the yeshiva; the Israel Defense Forces has already postponed his draft date several times. He grew up in Mitzpeh Yeriho, studied at the Yad Benyamin yeshiva high school near Kibbutz Hafetz Haim, and his father participated in the historic takeover of the Sebastia railroad station - a key event in the history of Gush Emunim. The son's window now overlooks the forest that surrounds the nearby site, but that is not his only connection to the place. "My father also served here as a new recruit, so he feels that I am following in his footsteps."

Eyal's beliefs are clear and unequivocal; the fire of redemption burns within him: "We are the first sign of the future. We are here because of the difficulties, because northern Samaria is the weakest area in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, because we are a bone in the Arabs' throat, because it's ours. I believe that the present war for the Land of Israel is God's test for the Jewish people. He created this situation so that we would search our souls."

Safer than Moscow

Hundreds of new immigrants have undergone absorption and conversion in the ulpan (Hebrew-language program) in Shavei Shomron, but when they complete their studies, they prefer to disperse all over the country rather than remain in the settlement. The four houses purchased recently in the new neighborhood by immigrants from the former Soviet Union are, therefore, a first sign that is creating great satisfaction among the leadership of the settlement.

According to Ofri, it's not only the grants, the huge reductions and the "Sharansky Project" [Minister of Housing and Construction Natan Sharansky devised a plan to promote construction of 700 housing units in the West Bank] that have led to this development: He is convinced that the positive change in the community atmosphere has also made an important contribution.

"As soon as one person buys, that creates a wave. Children who were thinking of leaving have chosen to stay, and temporary residents have also made a final decision to settle here," he explains.

Valentina ("Avital") and Alexander Vasilenko are, for the time being, renting a home in Shavei Shomron directly opposite the house they are building, and hope to receive the key in another six months. They came from Novosibirsk with their daughter, Lila. Alexander, a graduate of an arts academy, ran a ceramics studio; Valentina taught Russian language and literature in an institute for training students from abroad. At present, with no demand for his artistic creations or for her knowledge of Dostoevsky, they are living on unemployment benefits. Since that is not sufficient, twice a week Valentina travels to Kedumim to clean houses, and Alexander cares for a disabled man who lives in Shavei Shomron.

Both of them know that there is not much chance of starting a career in a new country at the age of 50. "We are like birds, finding sustenance wherever it is to be had," she laughs, in spite of everything. On the other hand, he is quiet and painfully gloomy, nor is his Hebrew as good as hers. He is Jewish; she is a convert.

"People here are nice, one can leave the door open, life is cheaper, the air is clean. Near the sea, it's impossible to breathe, the city is a jungle," says Valentina, explaining why Shavei Shomron, now of all times. Their reasons are entirely different from those of Haim Eyal from the yeshiva.

"Dangerous? We don't understand what's dangerous here," she claims. "Our oldest son, Mikhail, who stayed in Russia in order to complete his degree in management at the university in Omsk, came for a visit in the summer; his stories about the crime in Russia scare me much more. Robbers, mafia, drugs, murder. A person who comes home from work, gets into the elevator and gets out safely, has to thank God."

In Moscow, she reassures herself and us, the despair is far more profound.

A good life in a mobile home

As opposed to the relatively isolated Shavei Shomron, the settlement of Revava is in a central location, near Ariel and the Barkan industrial area, and a half- hour's drive east of Petah Tikva - if there is no traffic. The settlement was established on the eve of Independence Day in 1991.

"In terms of security, they have an excellent location; we should be so lucky," they say in Shavei Shomron about Revava, which enjoys a reputation of quality and solidarity that translate into a demand that is far greater than the supply.

Revava's population, which also numbers 110 families, is composed of young people up to the age of 40. The men are graduates of hesder yeshivas [which combine Torah study with military service] and the women all did National Service [an option for religious girls instead of regular army service].

"The group that has formed here has close ties with the center of the country. Most of us are from the coastal area," is how attorney Na'ama Vahnish, who serves as the spokeswoman for Revava, characterizes the settlement, defined as "communal-Torah observant."

Since July 2001, the community has absorbed 11 families and the forecast for next year is similar. The growth has never stopped here. On the debit side, three families have left, but because they headed for Yitzhar [south of Nablus] and Kfar Darom [in the Gaza Strip], the "deserters" are considered to be more committed to the settlement enterprise rather than less so, since they chose places that are more isolated and more dangerous. "We contributed them to the national effort," says Vahnish.

In Revava, there is almost no chance of meeting the men during daylight hours on a weekday. Only women, children, and soldiers from the security forces are seen on the paths of the settlement. In order to reinforce its firepower, the IDF gave all the women an accelerated course in the use of weapons. The men, in order to avoid the traffic jams that choke the Dan region, hurriedly leave every morning by 5:30 A.M. At 6:00, they say their morning prayers in synagogues in the Tel Aviv area, and from there they go to work until evening.

Toby and Meshulam Kiselnik came to Revava a year after they were married, "in spite of a four-room apartment in Petah Tikva, and in spite of the fact that our parents pressured us to stay near them," says Toby.

"We had a desire to observe the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel. What we really wanted, of course, was to live in Jerusalem, but in order to be near the family, we went instead to Samaria, in order to be an obstacle in the path of the terrorists," she explains.

Toby was greeted by a rock thrown at her car on the road going up to Revava. "Everything is for the good, thank God it was only that," she says. "It's a small price compared to the opportunity."

Her husband works in an architectural firm in Tel Aviv; she works for an accountant in Ariel. For the time being, they are living in a mobile home and she obviously is enjoying the experience, and even regards it with humor: "It's quite nice. We don't have to keep the house spanking clean, as I did all the time when we lived in Petah Tikva."

When Ziv Attias finished his studies in the department of construction engineering at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, he and his wife, Tzurit, looked for a community that would combine the Land of Israel, Torah and proximity to his job at Ben-Gurion Airport Project 2000. In Revava, they found the ideal combination for themselves and their three young children: "At first we considered Rehelim, but it's far, and we wanted a more established settlement."

Tzurit, who is involved in a national volunteer organization, explains the family's considerations in choosing Revava: "The security situation did not play a role. We trust in God to watch over us. I would be lying if I said that I travel on the roads calmly. I am not afraid, but I am alert. When I visited my parents in Nahariya this week and walked around the mall a little, I felt much more insecure than here. Compared to my sister, who lives in Kfar Darom," she emphasizes, "my dedication to the cause is very minor."

Redemption without suffering

Everything is relative. According to the settlers' "sacrifice index," as one goes further east on the West Bank, people are considered more idealistic. In the Gaza Strip, the determining factor is the degree of isolation. In a sense, those who didn't go all the way are even jealous of those who dared to do so. Revava, according to these strict criteria, is considered a paradise for spoiled idealists - like getting the best of both worlds.

"It is redeeming Samaria, but not through suffering," suggests Yaron Yehoshua, whose home is in the final stages of construction. He came to Revava from Kiryat Araba. "If I were a fiery idealist, I would go to live in Elon Moreh, but I'm not."

Oren and Na'ama Abrishami got married in February, on Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) in Jerusalem, and they are the newest residents of Revava. Just two days after the wedding, they moved with their few belongings into the mobile home allotted to them. Oren is studying construction engineering in Ariel; Na'ama is a receptionist at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. They wanted a settlement with a Torah orientation, "to raise children in the atmosphere of the Land of Israel."

"If we don't settle the West Bank and Gaza, we are wasting our time as a state," says Oren. "Despite the problems, we won't give up. After all, there isn't any place that can be considered safe; they are out to get us everywhere. Take my mother, a few hours before the wedding, she went to take care of some minor errands in the pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, and was caught in the attack by the woman suicide bomber. She was in shock, we were sure we would have to cancel the wedding, but fortunately, she recovered."

If Oren has to choose between the pedestrian mall and Revava, he prefers the second option. He says the couple's original destination was the settlement of Har Bracha on the outskirts of Nablus. "It's a great privilege to live there, but I haven't succeeded in attaining that level. I admire those guys for their courage, I wanted to live there too, but the moment Na'ama disagreed, I gave up the idea," he says apologetically, as though he had betrayed the cause.

"It's all my fault," admits his wife. "At this point, it sounds scary to me. It means giving up a great deal of convenience - one can't drop in on the family whenever one feels like it, or go on a trip. Har Bracha is too much; it means living the tension of the war at every moment. We have it in Revava, too, but certainly not at the same intensity."

Oren, for his part, is looking ahead: "I very much hope that at the end we'll get to Har Bracha, which for me is the summit of the mountain."

Until then, even without the Abrishamis, Har Bracha is flourishing. Spokesman Yaakov Idel reports that 11 houses have been purchased recently. In spite of everything, the area is waking up, assert contractors who do business there. At the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District, they are smiling with satisfaction.

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