Financial Times

Economic settlers eager to head home

By Tobias Buck in Karnei Shomron

Published: March 31 2010 03:00 | Last updated: March 31 2010 03:00

Benny Raz put up a "For Sale" sign outside his home last year but he admits there is little hope of finding a buyer. The house itself is a three- bedroom property on a quiet street, with a garden and terrace offering views across rolling hills dotted with olive trees.

The problem is one of location: Mr Raz's house sits on the outskirts of Karnei Shomron, a Jewish settlement built in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He bought the house 15 years ago for $130,000. Today, Mr Raz says, no buyer is willing to pay more than $70,000 (€52,000, £46,000) for the property - not nearly enough for the family to afford another place inside Israel itself.

Like thousands of so-called "economic settlers", the 57-year-old moved to the West Bank for the cheap housing, the tax breaks and the promise of a comfortable life. Now, many of them find they are stuck. "The government said: 'I will help you buy a house in Karnei Shomron.' So I went with my family. I came for economic reasons, not ideological reasons. I came because I wanted a cheaper house," says Mr Raz.

In almost any other place in the world, the housing dilemma faced by Mr Raz would be of limited interest to the international community. His home, however, happens to sit on one of the most contested pieces of real estate in the world.

Israel's settlements in the West Bank are today home to 300,000 Jews, with another 180,000 living in occupied East Jerusalem. Their presence is widely seen a principal obstacle to reaching a peace deal.

The settlers occupy land that the Palestinians claim for their future state.

Yet successive Israeli governments have insisted it would be politically impossible to uproot and rehouse so many of their citizens. That is why Israel wants to annex many of the largest settlements as part of any future peace agreement.

The story of Mr Raz and other economic settlers provides an important twist to this familiar dilemma. It suggests that a significant proportion of the settler community would be willing to leave quietly, and offer little or no resistance to an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, as long as the money can be found to relocate them.

That is especially true for some of the 120,000 inhabitants of the 73 Jewish settlements left outside the barrier that now seals off the West Bank from Israel.

Alarmed by Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a growing number of these settlers sense they will have to leave their homes sooner or later in any case. In the meantime, constant security concerns and worsening economic prospects make waiting for a final peace deal an unattractive prospect.

"In these places, the people know that there is no hope and there is no future. They understand that, at the end of the day, Israel will not keep these places," says Avshalom Vilan, from the leftwing Meretz party.

Mr Raz, who has spent years along with Mr Vilan and other leftwing politicians campaigning for state aid to bring back settlers, estimates that at least two-thirds of the settlers east of the barrier - or about 80,000 people - would be ready to leave. That assessment is based on a poll conducted by One Home, their campaign group,

Veteran observers of the settler movement agree. They point out that Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank fall into three groups of roughly equal size: ideological settlers, economic settlers and ultra-orthodox religious settlers. Analysts believe that most of those in the latter two categories could be enticed back to Israel with the promise of equivalent housing.

"If you leave an envelope outside every front door with the keys to a house in Israel, most of these places will be deserted overnight," says Akiva Eldar, an Israeli journalist and author of a book on the settlement enterprise.

Hagit Ofran, the director of Settlement Watch, points out that a government programme aimed at getting settlers back to Israel would also send out an important message: "It could have a great effect, mainly psychologically. You will start to see more and more settlers leaving, and that would mean that Israel is getting ready to leave the settlements [as a whole]."

But much to the disappointment of Mr Raz and his allies, the Israeli government has shown little interest in advancing a draft bill offering compensation to settlers who leave. "We are like a playing card. They want to show the world that they have a problem to take people from the settlements," Mr Raz says. "We came here for a comfortable life. But this is not a comfortable life."