They Call Them 'Light-Version' Settlements on the West Bank

Article Summary
While they may not call themselves “settlers,” hundreds of families have moved to the West Bank in search of affordable, spacious housing, writes Ofer Petersburg. Meet the new wave of economic settlers, who, for the most part, would have preferred to stay in Israel proper, were it not for the exorbitant real estate prices.

It's rather in doubt whether this is the solution that the leaders of the social justice protest [that swept Israel in the summer of 2011] wished for when they took to the streets to demonstrate against the exorbitant cost of housing in Israel. However, the much too high prices of real estate along with the release of lands for construction across the Green Line gave rise in the past year to a new and surprising trend: Hundreds of non-religious families have moved to Judea and Samaria in return for tax breaks and the low cost of a house plus a garden, and all this just five minutes away from Kfar Sava, Shoham or Rosh Ha'ayin [towns in central Israel located to the west of the Green Line].

A large number of the families who made the about-face and moved to Judea and Samaria have not done so for political reasons and have never identified in any way whatsoever with the political right or with its struggle for the Greater Land of Israel. In fact, it is just the opposite. Most of them are ideologically far removed from the so-called "hill youth" [politically messianic extremist settlers], much like the way Shenkin Street [a popular street epitomizing the spirit of the secular Tel Aviv] is far removed [both geographically and culturally] from Efrat [a Jewish religious settlement in the West Bank]; and as a rule, they vote for the leftist and centrist parties.

Nonetheless, hundreds of such families have already moved to settlements in Judea and Samaria, generally those close to the Green Line, or purchased apartments there. They characterize themselves as "non-religious," regular citizens who are tired of paying excessive rent rates in the central Tel Aviv District and are looking for a new three-bedroom apartment of their own.

You are invited to meet one of those typical Israeli families, the Barkan family — Eyal, 49, Liat, 42, and their three children — who moved two years ago from Ramat Hasharon [a town bordering on Tel Aviv, known for its high cost of housing] to the community settlement of Beit Aryeh [in the Ramallah district, in the northern West Bank]. "We left Ramat Hasharon to achieve better quality of life," says Eyal, a woodwork contractor. "The house we now have is much larger than the one we previously lived in. The children love it here in the countryside and have fun in the pool. They have all made new friends here. And the community is very supportive, in all matters."

Doesn't it bother you that you have actually become settlers?

"We dub it 'a light-version territories settlement' and it is like living in a dream here. I was raised in Ramat Ef'al [an upscale secular residential neighborhood in central Israel], so that I have never had anything to do with the settlements. I am living today in a hilly area and enjoying the breeze and the sea view, far from the polluted grimy central region of the country. Before arriving in Ramat Hasharon, we lived in the United States, and I told my wife that I had to live in a rural environment. We looked for the right place for quite some time. I wished I could live in the northern, mountainous part of the country, but when we first came to Beit Aryeh, it reminded me of the [northern] Galilee scenery.

"We are not far from the central part of the country here, which is an advantage. The settlement is half an hour's drive from Tel Aviv and just a five-minute drive from Shoham and Modiin [towns in the Center District of Israel located approximately halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv]. I don't run into traffic jams and I can easily get anywhere in the central part of the country. We have no fears of living in the territories, and the residents of the neighboring [Palestinian] village are welcome guests at my home. We are all friends. I built a house and I have never locked it since."

Fed up with crowded, crummy apartments

"Ariel [an Israeli settlement city in central West Bank] has nothing to do with ideology. Rather, it has become a real estate attraction for central district residents who cannot afford housing there," says Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman. He further notes that rent prices in the city are expected to rise once Ariel College is granted university status. In fact, housing prices in Ariel have already gone up significantly and are approaching the prices in the periphery areas of the Tel Aviv District.

The Judea and Samaria settlements most in demand by the new settlers are Shaarey Tikva, Oranit, Ariel, Alfei Menashe and Beit Aryeh, in the center of the country, and Ma'ale Adumim in the Jerusalem area. The government has recently released for building [lands for] hundreds of housing units in the territories, which further encourages the rush to the region. The benefits granted by the government to the [Jewish] residents of Judea and Samaria also play a major role in the turnabout. What's more, the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria have received additional reinforcement from the governmental committee headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy [the "outposts committee"], which stipulated among other things that the establishment of settlements [in the territories] could not be considered illegal. Furthermore, figures released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics indicate a drastic rise in the investments in Judea and Samaria. From 2003 until the end of 2011, the Israeli government invested close to $2.5 billion (more than 10 billion shekels) in the settlements across the Green Line. In the past year alone, the government invested some $250 million (over one billion shekels) in the settlements.

The Kosoy family — Edita and Vladimir, both 32, with two little children — arrived in Ariel a few years ago to study at the college there and recently, they have registered to purchase an apartment in Ariel. Edita is working at the Ariel University Center of Samaria and her husband is working in Tel Aviv. They both say that what they deem most important is to live in a new, aesthetically-pleasing, nice home that they can afford. "We have no political affiliation or bias," says Edita. "We haven't decided yet whether we are [politically] left or right. We are leading a healthy lifestyle, and it is essential for us to live in a green neighborhood and to limit as far as possible the need for car rides."

The social protest too has pushed many families to cross the Green Line and move to the territories. Revital Akerman, 38, and her spouse Amir Teini, 43, who characterize themselves as leftists, moved with their three children (twin girls aged four and a two-year-old boy) a year ago, at the height of the social justice protest, from Givatayim [a town next to Tel Aviv] to Alfei Menashe [an Israeli settlement located in the seam zone on the western edge of the central West Bank]. "The economic situation left us no choice and forced us to make the move," Revital admits. "We were living in an old two-bedroom apartment and I felt that it was not enough for the children. We are now living in a rented four-bedroom garden apartment with a large yard and a balcony. It's very difficult to find, in any reasonable neighborhood, in the center of the country, an inhabitable apartment with more than two bedrooms at low rent rates."

What about your political views? Didn't they play any role in your decision?

No. We are politically leftists; however, when you think about the children, it's neither left nor right, but rather the future of the children. They enjoy rich community and social life here, much more so than they could get in the center."

Another couple pushed to move to Judea and Samaria following the social protest is Gili Cohen and Sarit Gabai, both 36. "We would rather go on living in Tel Aviv; however, the rent simply 'finished' us," Cohen says."How many years can you go on paying a rent of $1000 dollars (thousands of shekels) a month for an old two-bedroom apartment [The rent in Tel Aviv for a two bed-room apartment is around $1,700]. I found a ranch for next to nothing in Ofarim [a West Bank settlement appended to the local council of Beit Aryeh in 2004]. It has nothing to do with left and right politics, but rather with the social protest politics. Naturally, I would rather go on living in the center of the country; however, at best, I would have lost my pants had I gone on paying rent for housing in the center."

So, would you recommend the move to others?

"Everyone has to decide for himself. It's not all as rosy as it may seem. I happened to be in Tel Aviv the other day and made it just in time to the bus station [for the bus back home], but the bus was two minutes ahead and I missed it. I waited three hours for the next bus. We have no commercial center in the settlement, there are not enough cultural activities and the medical center is far away; however, you cannot go on paying crazy rent rates all your life, so you compromise."

"We are settlers against our will," admits G., who has moved to a small settlement in Judea and Samaria. "They all know in the settlement that I am not holding rightist views, but I am very satisfied with the quality of life and the possibilities offered for raising children here. Of course, it's a compromise, but housing prices in the center are not going to fall, so this is the least expensive alternative in the Tel Aviv District environs."

We are not concerned over possible evacuation

However, inexpensive and attractive as the move to the territories settlements may seem to be, it also raises serious concerns, above all, the fear of withdrawal from Judea and Samaria and evacuation of the settlements there. Yet, many of the new settlers moving to the Judea and Samaria settlements admit that they have taken into account the risk of evacuation and that they are relying on the compensation they expect to receive from the State. According to Adv. Neta Cohen-Salman, who deals, among other things, with real estate transactions in Judea and Samaria, the compensation per family evacuated from Judea and Samaria is likely to stand at around $1 million (4 million shekels), including all constituent elements and services that a family may need during and following the evacuation.

Cohen-Salman further notes that the Gaza and northern Samaria evacuees received at the time [following the enactment of Israel's unilateral disengagement plan in August 2005] compensation averaging from about $370,000 to nearly $500,000 (from 1.5 million shekels to 2 million shekels) per family, not including compensation due to loss of jobs, closure of businesses and so on. One may dispute Cohen-Salman's estimates; however, there is no doubt that if settlements located close to the Green Line like Ariel and Alfei Menashe are also evacuated, their residents will be given generous compensation.

There is another problem clouding the purchase of housing [whether apartments or houses] in Judea and Samaria: Adv. Cohen-Salman says that quite frequently such purchase deals involve considerable red tape incurred, among other factors, by over-taxation and excess fees levied due to the fact that the apartments [or houses] purchased cannot be registered in the land registry bureau.

On the other hand, the [Jewish] residents in Judea and Samaria are entitled to numerous taxation and welfare benefits. According to data collected by the Israel Finance Ministry's State Revenue Administration, already in 2001, the tax benefits granted to the Judea and Samaria settlers amounted to over $32 million (130 million shekels). In the past decade, the number of Israelis living across the Green Line has significantly grown and it currently stands at $340,000. Thus, it is commonly estimated that the total sum of tax breaks has also increased to a large extent.

Contrary to the customary procedures in Israel proper, the local councils in Judea and Samaria usually refrain from collecting [land] betterment charges due to the ratification of local or municipal development plans [referred to in the US as comprehensive plans, or comprehensive planning] or due to non-conforming use. These exemptions are granted since the Planning and Construction Law is not enforced in Judea and Samaria. Generally, the Israeli taxation authorities are also lenient about the payment of land appreciation tax on the profit made upon selling a real estate property in Judea and Samaria or the realization of building rights relating to real estate properties in Judea and Samaria. It is a most significant benefit worth a large percentage of the property's value, which may reach, at times, dozens of percents.

In addition, the Judea and Samaria settlers enjoy an assortment of [municipal] property tax benefits, varying between the local councils. In certain settlements in the territories the residents are granted significant discounts on nursery-school, elementary and high-school enrollment fees, so that the education expenditures of the Judea and Samaria residents can be considerably lower than those of Israeli citizens living in Israel proper.

Last March, the Hanan Mor Group-Holdings Ltd won a tender by the Ministry of Housing and Construction and the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria for a construction project of 100 housing units in a neighborhood of Ariel, Quarter B South, where six buildings are planned. According to the entrepreneur, many of the potential buyers that have already shown interest in the project are young couples from the satellite towns of Ariel. The Hanan Mor Group plans to offer for sale three-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments, garden apartments and penthouses at prices starting at just under $210,000 (850,000 shekels) for a three-bedroom apartment, compared with about $321,000 (1.3 million shekels) charged for a similar apartment in Rosh Ha'ayin and just above $395,000 (1.6 million shekels), for an equivalent apartment in Kfar Sava.

The standby list of interested buyers waiting to move to Judea and Samaria is pretty long. Sharon and Tal Hamam, parents to a baby girl aged three months, are living with their parents in the village of Elishema, located in the Sharon plain near Kfar Sava. "We bought land across the Green Line, east of Rosh Ha'ayin," they say, "and this, just because it was cheap, not because of politics.A plot of half a dunam (500 square meters) at a price of about $19,800 (80,000 shekels) — that's quite reasonable."

Sarit and Kfir Mazor, in their mid-thirties and parents to two little children, moved to the settlement of Oranit, across the Green Line, two years ago. They, too, characterize themselves as moderate leftists. However, it transpires that in their case, too, ideology is determined by reality. "The high prices forced us to move from Tel Aviv to Oranit," Sarit says. "After all, for how long can you go on living in a crowded crummy cubbyhole in town?! The truth is that a short while after our wedding, in 2007, Kfir's mother raised the idea of moving here. We rejected the idea out of hand. We weren't even willing to consider it. We? In the territories? No way! In fact, I would have returned to Tel Aviv right now, at this instant, but I stand no chance of finding there what I have here: a spacious private house plus a garden and a large yard."

Found in: west bank, settlements, palestine, occupation, israel, economic crisis, economic

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