- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 29, 2001

ARIEL, West Bank — Olga Pelis was puzzled last summer when friends complained that their cars were being stoned as they drove back from evening concerts in Tel Aviv to this Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
The 49-year-old immigrant from Latvia says she had no idea that for a year and a half, she had been living on territory Palestinians consider their own. She had come with her family at the invitation of settler recruiters, who had flown to Latvia and promised her a teaching job.
At the time, peace efforts were moving ahead, and the region was relatively calm. But now it is engulfed in fighting, and fewer Israelis are willing to risk their lives settling in the West Bank. So Ariel and at least two other settlements are stepping up their drive to fill the gap with immigrants. The last such effort was two months ago, when recruiters from Ariel went to Moscow.
But do the newcomers know what they're getting into, especially now? Settlement officials deny holding back the facts, but some immigrants say they were caught unaware. Mrs. Pelis said she began to figure out the story last summer when she read a newspaper article about Palestinian summer camps where children were given military training, including drills on assembling assault rifles and kidnapping enemies.
"I was surprised, and I was wondering why are they doing so — what are their plans?" said Mrs. Pelis, originally from the Latvian town of Dauvavpils. "Then, in September, everything started."
Ariel began sending recruiters to the former Soviet republics two years ago, and has attracted 3,000 immigrants. Over the past decade, its population has nearly doubled to 17,000.
There are so many newcomers that Ariel's three clinics have Russian-speaking doctors.
The city plans a secular burial plot for immigrants who are not Jewish by strict Orthodox law, whose families have trouble burying them in Jewish cemeteries.
Of Israel's roughly 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, about 13,500 live in the West Bank, making up about 7 percent of the total settler population of 200,000 living among some 2 million Palestinians.
It's a highly contentious issue. Palestinians are outraged at the settling of land they want for a future state, and the United States, as well as Israeli doves such as the Peace Now movement, consider the settlements a serious obstacle to peace.
Amiram Goldblum, who monitors settlements for Peace Now, said recruiting immigrants reveals a desperation to fill empty houses because of shrinking demand, and undercuts official arguments that settlements must expand for natural population growth.
"Most of the growth of the city is by immigrants, because fewer Israelis are coming," agreed Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, who serves on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. The semigovernmental organization brings Jews to Israel but not, it says, to the disputed areas.
The debate about funneling immigrants to settlements began in 1990, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Israel must control the West Bank "for future generations and for the mass immigration" of Soviet Jews.
The comments angered Palestinians, and Washington refused to back $10 billion in loans to resettle immigrants until after Mr. Shamir was voted out of office and Israel guaranteed the money would not be used in the disputed territories.
It was then that Mr. Nachman quietly went ahead with a campaign to attract immigrants.
Ariel's representatives met immigrants at Israel's airport to bring them to the West Bank, and the emissary effort began two years ago. Mr. Nachman says the financing comes from U.S. Jewish and Christian groups.
Some immigrants interviewed in Ariel said the recruiters never told them that they might become targets of the Palestinians.
"We didn't know that they would throw stones at our cars or shoot," said Anatoli Kundratiev, 50, who moved here with his family in 1993 from Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
Some said they didn't even realize Ariel was beyond the so-called "Green Line" between Israel and the West Bank — captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.
Shosh Levavi, an emissary and director of Ariel's immigrant absorption office, insists she is truthful about Ariel's situation: "I try to explain [that] Ariel is beyond the Green Line. But in Russia, before they are doing the very difficult act of emigrating, they can't understand this."
Since fighting began, 35 Jewish settlers have been killed in drive-by shootings and roadside ambushes, including at least two immigrants.
Still, Svetlana Weisbrot, Ariel's deputy mayor and an immigrant from Simferopol, Ukraine, said the demand by immigrants continues and 2,000 new apartments are needed.
Yuli Edelstein, the deputy immigration minister, praises Ariel's emissary program.
The three trips a year are paid for by the World Zionist Organization. The emissaries travel to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan and other central Asian countries. They speak to groups of dozens or hundreds.
Representatives from metal factories near Ariel travel with the emissaries, bringing job offers. The immigrants get free computer training and Hebrew and English classes, free rent for one month and after-school programs.
Mr. Levavi, the immigrant absorption director in Ariel, said 5 percent of the newcomers have left Ariel, some because of the dangers. One moved his family from Ariel to the coastal city of Netanya, and died there on May 18 in a Palestinian suicide bombing at a mall.
Mrs. Pelis remembers standing on the edge of this hilltop and marveling at the vista of dusty hills, olive groves and Palestinian villages with minarets.
"I didn't realize this at all," she said. "When I was looking down at those Arab villages it seemed very nice. There was no sign of any danger."
Mrs. Pelis said she, her husband, Simon, and their son, Dennis, 24, a computer-science student at Ariel's college, don't plan to leave because they think life in Israel itself is just as dangerous.
Also, coming from Latvia, where her husband's parents hid their religion, she feels a sense of mission — that she's doing what she's "supposed to do."
"I understand that this is a new life, and I chose it myself," she said.


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