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Beni Raz on a hill overlooking the Karnei Shomron settlement in the West Bank, where he has lived for 13 years.
Beni Raz on a hill overlooking the Karnei Shomron settlement in the West Bank, where he has lived for 13 years. (Michal Fattal for the Boston Globe)

West Bank settlers looking to relocate

Many pressing for compensation

KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank -- Like many of the 7,000 residents here, Beni Raz did not come to live in the West Bank for ideological reasons. Having grown up in an Israeli farming community and then having four children of his own, he wanted to live in a small town, with space so that his family could ''live a good life."

So in 1993, Raz moved his family to Karnei Shomron, about 6 miles west of Nablus, thinking a coming peace would allow him to stay for the remainder of his days. Thirteen years later, he is desperate to leave.

''I'm looking 100 meters ahead, and I see this won't be a part of the country," Raz said. ''We're saying, 'We don't want to wait, let's go now.' "

Raz is a founding member of Bayit Ehad, Hebrew for ''One Home." Founded a few months before Israel removed all its settlers from the Gaza Strip last summer, the movement is lobbying the government to pay compensation to West Bank settlers who want to return now to within the pre-1967 borders of Israel rather than wait until, presumably, they are forced to do so.

Following recent comments from Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that further rounds of disengagement are inevitable, Bayit Ehad is stepping up its efforts.

If the Kadima Party that Olmert inherited from ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wins the Israeli elections on Tuesday as expected, Olmert has said he intends to evacuate settlers within the next few years whose communities do not fall within the security barrier that Israel is building around and through the West Bank. If the barrier is completed along the currently planned route, about 80,000 of the 250,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank will remain on the Palestinian side.

Under current plans outlined by top Kadima politicians, Karnei Shomron would remain on the Israeli side of the barrier, and thus under Israeli control for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, Raz said residents doubt that Israel could permanently retain settlements like this one deep inside the West Bank, and the settlers would rather get on with their lives than wait for an inevitable day when they were evicted.

''Reality is stronger than we are and we know the world is changing," said Raz, who sees no final peace here unless Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 borders. ''We want to build our future and we want to build it in a permanent place."

Though the image of the Israeli settler is usually one of uncompromising belief in the right to live on land promised to Jews by God, statistics provided by the main settler council indicate that 40 percent of the Jews living in the West Bank are secular. Like Raz, they were enticed to come by government-subsidized housing and the strong sense of community that permeates settlements like this one.

''We don't want to be a card for the government to play in negotiations," Raz said. ''Most of us are not ideologues. We just came here for a good life, and we're very happy to have it somewhere else."

The compensation is necessary, Raz said, because the prospect of further disengagement has heavily devalued his home and land. Settlers across West Bank towns, especially those that fall outside the security fence, describe similar circumstances.

Colette Avital, a Labor party member of the Knesset and Bayit Ehad cofounder, had people like Raz in mind when drawing up legislation providing such compensation.

''To make it possible to return [to pre-1967 Israel] doesn't only mean to meet people and have a coffee with them," Avital said. ''This [legislation] promotes their interests and gives them the tools and means to come back."

After the elections, Avital plans to introduce the legislation, which includes the stipulation that settlers move to pre-1967 Israel in order to receive the compensation.

The law would also make the vacated home the property of the government, preventing new families from moving into the structure, as occurred in Gaza before the disengagement there.

She gives no estimates for its cost, but insists providing compensation for people to leave of their own accord is much less expensive than forcing them out. Israel spent around $2.2 billion compensating arranging new housing for 9,000 people last summer.

Avital expects a tough political fight to get the bill passed, as it has not won endorsement from the centrist Kadima, much less from the right-wing parties. Its prospects, she said, depend heavily on the makeup of the next Knesset.

While settler leaders acknowledge that individual threats may have occurred, they say there is no widespread plan to undermine Bayit Ehad or to prevent anyone from leaving the West Bank.

Emily Amrusi, a spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, which uses the biblical names for the two main sections of the West Bank, disputed Raz's assertion that settlers had intimidated those seeking to withdraw.

''If they want to go, we will be very sad but they can go," she said.

When the council looked into the Bayit Ehad movement, Amrusi said, it found its support to be very low and was ''not a threat" to their cause of retaining the West Bank for Israel.

Despite last summer's disengagement and the forecast for further withdrawals, she said, the number of Jews in areas that the council represents remained steady in 2005 and will increase this year.

''The settlements are growing all the time and there are every day more families coming to them," Amrusi said.

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