Ariel, Israel — Sam Rafaeli and his wife, Roni, used to drive regularly from their settlement home here to Tel Aviv to attend the theater and concerts. Not anymore.
“It has been more than a year since I have been to a concert,” said Rafaeli, alluding to the start of the Palestinian violence in September 2000. “I had a subscription [to a concert series]; I gave it up.”
Rafaeli, 52, a teacher at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel and the city’s voluntary deputy mayor, only drives to Tel Aviv now when he must for work or for family engagements, such as a bar mitzvah.
He and Roni used to regularly socialize with a Palestinian school principal and her husband who live in Salfit, an Arab village a half-mile away. Not anymore.
The principal’s husband, a building contractor, used to regularly find work in Ariel. Not anymore.
More than 17 months of Palestinian violence has forced major changes in the lives of the residents of Ariel, with 18,000 residents one of the largest West Bank settlements.
Once tethered inexorably to Tel Aviv, those who live in Ariel — which is perched 1,900 feet above sea level with commanding views of the Mediterranean and the coastal plain — now find themselves increasingly isolated, in many ways cut off from the cultural hub of Israel a half-hour west. They are learning to be more self-sufficient, and in the process have become more insular, an island unto themselves.
They forced the Israeli government in November 2000 to open the Cross Samarian Highway, a bypass road to Tel Aviv, even before it was ready. Palestinian terrorists, under the cover of darkness, would routinely throw rocks at the cars of Ariel residents traveling to and from Tel Aviv. More than 150 cars were hit and countless motorists injured on the old roadway, which cut through several Palestinian villages.
Now the residents of Ariel are embarked on a building campaign to make Tel Aviv’s nightlife less enticing. Within the next 18 months, Ariel plans to open a $4.5 million tennis and recreation center and a $5 million center for the performing arts. There is no government support for the rec center, but half of the money has already been raised. Most of the arts center is government-funded.
“We want to keep people here at night and not have to depend on Tel Aviv for recreation,” Dina Shalit, executive director of the Ariel Development Fund, told a State of Israel Bonds’ rabbinic delegation during its recent visit to Ariel.
About 65 percent of Ariel residents work in Tel Aviv, including Rafaeli’s wife of 30 years, a nurse at a Tel Aviv hospital. Before the bypass road was open, his wife would sleep at the hospital rather than drive home in the dark. Since the bypass road opened, she has driven home at night, but only after calling home to say she was on her way.
The new road has been free of violence, except for occasional stone throwing and explosives that were planted twice but caused no casualties, Rafaeli said.
Still, he and many others in this city won’t chance the road for social activities in Tel Aviv.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Shalit. “Even though there have hardly been any incidents on that road, you can’t erase the cumulative stress that has built up over 17 months of violence. You can’t be sure it will be trouble free.”
Ofra Ben Yaacov, Israel’s consul in New York for cultural affairs, said Ariel residents are not alone among West Bank residents in staying off the road at night.
“People who live in the territories dare not go out of their home after dark,” she said. “Although we are talking about very brave people, it is too much of a risk to go from Ariel to Tel Aviv at night.”
She said that in the first few months after the violence began, attendance at Israeli theaters was off 50 percent and more. But those who live in the cities or suburbs where the performances are held have gradually returned and now attendance is off only 10 to 20 percent, she said.
One Ariel resident, Shosh Levavi, 54, said it had always been Ariel’s goal to be self-sufficient.
“We provide for our medical needs, shopping needs, educational needs, and now it is time to provide for our recreational needs,” she said. “It’s very important to give all our citizens, especially our new citizens, the feeling that you can live normal lives and be happy and go to the cinema and to a concert even if we hear shooting close to us.”
Although Palestinians attacks from Salfit are rare, they have occurred. The last one came five or six months ago when the 10 houses closest to Salfit were fired upon, Levavi said. There were no injuries.
On Sunday, Israeli tank shells destroyed a Palestinian military intelligence building in Salfit, killing one person. The shelling came in response to an attack by a Palestinian sniper who shot dead 10 Israelis — seven soldiers and three civilians — at a West Bank military checkpoint several miles southeast of Ariel. Two of the three civilians were residents of Ariel.
Rafaeli said he lives less than a mile from Salfit and that when the wind blows in the right direction, he is awakened at 4 a.m. by the loudspeakers there calling the devout to prayer.
Talking about the school principal in the village, he says the two couples used to visit each other’s homes. Now they speak only by telephone.
“They told us that if we came there, they couldn’t guarantee our lives and they couldn’t guarantee their own lives because they would be considered traitors,” Rafaeli said.
“Her husband works in the construction business. He used to work here in Ariel. Now he is working in Salfit and Nablus. He tells me it is very difficult. I don’t envy them; I really feel sorry for them.”
Shalit said that only one-third of Ariel’s residents live here for ideological reasons and that 52 percent of the population arrived from the former Soviet Union within the last 11 years. Most settled here for its low-cost housing — about one-third the price of the major cities.
The community, which also has five elementary schools and the fastest-growing high school in the country, is poised to grow rapidly in the future. Another 500 Israelis are expected to settle this year and the population — which started with 40 families in 1978 — is expected to soar to 60,000 in another 25 years, she said.
Even without the Palestinian violence, Ariel had a need to be more self-sufficient. The violence has simply hastened the pace of construction, as it did with the need for a bypass road to Tel Aviv, according to Ron Nachman, Ariel’s mayor since 1985.
Nachman’s wife, Dorith, told the Israel Bonds’ rabbinic delegation that she found the educational system in Ariel “a lot better than I used to know in Tel Aviv.”
“The children here get a lot more,” she said, “and I know that most of the teachers are better and more caring. Most are from Ariel. We teach our own kids and it shows.”
Ron Nachman used the rabbis’ visit to hammer home his belief that Jews should not give up the territories. He pointed out that Pope John Paul II once said that although “this is holy land for all, it is promised land only for the Jewish people.”
“I ask you to be an advocate,” Nachman said to the rabbis. “Settlers are seen as obstacles to peace and fanatics. But look what we have built here from scrap. … You saw the kids in our schools, our hotel and university research center. You should have that picture in mind when you speak of Ariel.”
Nachman lamented that Jewish groups no longer visit Ariel.
“You know who comes?” he asked rhetorically. “Christians led by their pastors come here and stay a week in our hotel. They say that in the Bible there is no Green Line or occupied territories. They support us, and our [Jewish] brothers don’t.”
The next time he leads a congregational trip to Israel, Rabbi Laurence Bazer of Temple Beth Chai in Hauppauge, L.I., said he would like to take them to Ariel to break some of the stereotypes about settlers.
“They are Israelis who happen to live in Ariel,” he said. “They are not extremists. They are teaching and working and raising children.”
Nachman said that he was seeking to “find ventures with venture capitalists.”
“Ariel is not only a settlement, it is a center of high-tech,” he said.
Under a peace initiative launched by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the Arab world would normalize relations with Israel if it withdrew to its 1967 border. Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations said Abdullah’s associates assured him the border could be modified with Palestinian approval, something Ariel’s residents are counting on.
Chana Golan, 51, the mother of three and Nachman’s assistant, said she has lived in Ariel 23 years and believes Israel has no intention of ever giving it up. She noted that even in the maps drawn up as part of the Oslo peace accords, Ariel was included as part of Israel.
But she added: “When it becomes a realistic plan and we have to choose real peace, my opinion is that the land is not holy; life is holy. We will give it up for life, for our children and for our soldiers.”
Although the rabbis’ visit coincided with a lull in the violence, the threat of violence was on everyone’s minds. The rabbis, along with some of their spouses, traveled to Ariel in a bulletproof bus. To emphasize the need for such buses, Nachman took the rabbis to see a bus that had been blown up in an ambush in December by Palestinian terrorists, who then gunned down passengers as they tried to escape. Ten Israelis were killed in the massacre.
The bus, which was headed for the settlement of Emanuel 10 miles away, was towed to a parking lot in Ariel. Evidence of the explosion that ripped apart the rear of the bus, and the countless bullets that pierced its skin, shocked many of the rabbis.
“It’s like going down to Ground Zero,” said Rabbi Yaacov Rone, national director of Israel Bonds’ Synagogue and Rabbinic Division. “It’s not something that is cleansed; it’s real.”
Rabbi Alan Lavin of Temple Hillel in North Woodmere said it was one thing seeing memorials at sites where Israelis had been killed in terror attacks and another actually seeing the bus “riddled with bullet holes, with all of its windows blown out.”
Sam Rafaeli, the deputy mayor of Ariel, said there was little optimism about peace in the near future.
“Most of the people don’t believe the Palestinians,” he said. “I don’t think real peace is coming. Many Israelis lost belief in Palestinian intentions. If we could only see a change in the behavior of the Palestinians, but we don’t.
“Look at what they teach in their schools,” Rafaeli said. “They don’t speak about how good peace could be, not even about change.”