Laurie Copans
The Associated Press
April 24, 2008 - 5:46pm

When the Ventura family moved to this West Bank settlement from a Tel Aviv suburb 20 years ago, they sought open spaces and mountain air.

But years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting have scared away their children and grandchildren. Now the retired couple wants to move back.

"We came here for quality of life when there were no worries here," said Tzuri Ventura, 68, a retired truck driver. "We just want to get out of here ... but we don't have enough money."

A new bill would compensate West Bank settlers like the Venturas who voluntarily leave their homes, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to decide within days whether to support it.

The idea is to get a head start on the evacuation of West Bank settlements that would have to be dismantled anyway in a final peace deal with the Palestinians. Olmert and the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank are trying to conclude such an agreement by year's end, despite enormous obstacles.

Getting settlers to move of their own accord could help Israel avoid the violence and anguish that accompanied the country's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

During Israel's evacuation of 8,000 settlers from Gaza, sobbing residents were dragged from their homes and others violently resisted. Many of the settlements were built during the euphoria that swept the country after Israel captured the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1967.

While Israel hopes to hold onto several clumps of settlements, Olmert has said Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank for a future Palestinian state. Those sections will likely be those located on the other side of the massive separation barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank and that is nearly complete. More than 70,000 Jewish settlers live in these areas.

As part of U.S. involvement in Mideast peace talks, American officials have expressed interest in the bill. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has raised the issue in meetings with Olmert, officials from his Kadima Party said.

A key backer of the bill, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, will give Olmert a report on the bill in the coming days to persuade him to support it, government officials said on condition of anonymity since Olmert and Ramon were declining to comment on the bill.

The offer would apply to residents of 74 settlements expected to lie outside Israel's West Bank 490-mile separation barrier, said Avshalom Vilan of the dovish Meretz Party, a co-author of the legislation.

The bill's sponsors hope the U.S. government would offer aid to compensate the settlers. If half the settlers in question agreed to leave voluntarily, Vilan estimates the total cost of buying them out would be between $2 billion and $2.5 billion.

Ramon's report shows that 25 percent of the settlers living in these communities would leave their homes if compensated, the Yediot Ahronot daily said this week. Sponsors of the proposal say the number is as high as 50 percent.

Settlers who support the proposal say many of their neighbors are afraid to admit they want to move. About half of the settlers are religious hard-liners who believe God promised the West Bank to the Jewish people. For them, moving constitutes betrayal.

"Many people are afraid to speak up because of public pressure," said Benny Raz, a resident of Karnei Shomron and founder of One Home, an organization of settlers who want to move.

Raz and Vilan travel all over the West Bank, holding "parlor talks" with settler families who are anxious to return to Israel proper but cannot find anyone to buy the homes whose property values have fallen in recent years.

Hard-line settlers sometimes demonstrate outside the meetings. Opponents also warn participants they could be fired from local jobs. Raz himself lost a security job in Karnei Shomron after he began pushing for compensation four years ago.

The fate of Karnei Shomron's 7,000 residents is particularly unclear.

The community sits just outside the Ariel settlement bloc, which Olmert has said he wants to keep in a final agreement along with other blocs closer to the Israeli frontier with the West Bank.

Israel began to build a separate fence around Ariel, creating a finger that stretches well into the West Bank, but halted the work two years ago after the United States protested.

Government officials have refused to tell Karnei Shomron's residents where the community will fall. One of the Orthodox Jewish founders of the settlement in 1977, Herzl Ben-Ari, believes the area will be annexed to Israel in the end.

"When we came here we built big to show how serious we were, to show we were here to stay," said Ben-Ari, the local municipal leader. "In the end we will be like the Tel Aviv metropolitan area."

Tzuri Ventura disagrees. He points to "for sale" signs that dot properties along his street. Assessors told the Venturas their apartment is worth the same as it was when they bought it in 1989. The couple says they couldn't afford to buy anything in Israel if they got such a paltry price.

After fighting in four of Israel's wars, Ventura is not sure Israel should transfer West Bank land to the Palestinians. He just wants to be able to see his grandchildren as he grows older. An upstairs apartment built for the younger generations sits empty.

"Our daughter has two children, ages four and seven months," Ventura said. "She has refused to visit since a suicide bombing here four years ago. Now we are left alone."


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