SHILO, West Bank - House hunting? Looking for land?
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Teaneck, N.J., has a deal for you: new hilltop homes of about 1,700 square feet, with sweeping views, good schools, great communities, starting at $80,000.
Nearly all the homes are not yet built. They may be demolished if they do materialize. And they're guaranteed to offend the neighbors.
The homes are in Jewish settlements on land claimed by both Palestinians and Israelis in the disputed West Bank. They are part of a new effort by a right-wing Israeli group to skirt government limits on new settlements. The group hopes to expand Jewish communities in the West Bank by tapping wealthy Americans.
The effort, opposed by Palestinians and many Israelis, could complicate future peace efforts.
Still, the Israeli group, Amana, will make its pitch in a series of housing fairs across the United States. The first will be tomorrow morning in North Jersey in Pruzansky's Bnai Yeshurun, which calls itself the oldest and largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck.
"We are trying to find rich people abroad who can contribute to the state of Israel," said Emily Amrussi, a spokeswoman for Amana, a private group that supports the settlers. "This isn't a regular investment like the stock market. It is an ideological investment."
The hope is that deep-pocketed Americans - those who consider Israel as much a cause as a country - will pay to have homes built in Israeli settlements. They can move in themselves or rent them out cheaply to Israeli families high on Zionist spirit but low on cash.
Pruzansky said he was advising his congregants to "show support and act on our belief that God gave the entire state of Israel to the Jewish people."
New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents a Jewish part of Brooklyn, has already pledged to build a home with a friend, and to help lead the campaign.
"All these years I've expressed my support for the people who live in Judea and Samaria," biblical names for the West Bank, Hikind said. "Now this is an opportunity to do something concrete."
This effort comes at a time when the settler community is fighting for its survival. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected on a platform that made a priority of dismantling West Bank settlements. President Bush's 2002 road map peace plan called for the expansion to stop in return for a halt to terrorism. And a new U.S. push to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require Israel's withdrawal from many settlements.
The Israeli government once built hundreds of homes in settlements every year and offered tax incentives to encourage Israelis to move to historic or strategic areas.
The effort attracted about 250,000 residents in 121 settlements in the West Bank alone, according to the anti-settlement group Peace Now.
But international pressure has prompted the Israeli government to scale back.
Amana's goal is to have U.S. citizens pick up where the Israeli government left off.
The group said that it held previously issued, but still valid, building permits, which will allow new houses to proceed. A spokeswoman said she did not know how many permits the group had.
A spokeswoman for Olmert, Miri Eisin, said Amana "positively won't be issued any new building permits."
But Eisin said she was unsure how authorities would view the older permits. "The question is, Are they breaking any laws? Right now they are not. So we can't stop" the fund-raising, Eisin said.
Dror Etkes, director of Peace Now's Settlement Watch program, said the new effort only complicated the peace process.
"There are more constructive ways to support the state of Israel," Etkes said. "Don't spend your money on something that might be demolished."
Mohamed Edwan, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called the plan divisive and said it would only increase tensions. "That doesn't serve Palestinian, Israeli or American interests," Edwan said. "And it is against the safety of the settlers."
Ideologically driven Israelis have dismissed such warnings for decades. For many, settling sites such as Shilo, the first capital of ancient Israel, or Hebron, a holy burial site, is an obligation, regardless of Palestinian sensitivities or ownership.
Standing outside his stucco and red-tile-roofed home in the Shilo settlement, almond trees blooming in the valley below, Philadelphia native Steven "Shimon" Siegel, 49, explained how a boy from Strawberry Mansion found his Eden amid the rocky hills of the West Bank.
"I feel an attachment to the land itself," said Siegel, who pointed at the valley, the plateau beside it, and the hills to the south to relate a tale from the Bible that occurred on this exact spot. "This is where my ancestors guarded the tabernacle. Moving here was like coming home."
Amana now will be offering homes in Shilo and nine other West Bank settlements. Siegel welcomes Amana's effort and any newcomers it attracts. "We need to grow," he said. "It makes our stand with the government much firmer."
Walking through Shilo's quiet streets, waving at each car that goes by and saying hello to every pedestrian they meet, Siegel and his New Zealand-born wife, Pnina, 47, described their community of about 2,000 residents as the idyllic small town.
When Pnina left to visit her hospitalized mother, neighbors made sure her husband and five children had home-cooked meals.
"There's such freedom and such caring," Pnina said.
There's also heavy security. The public buses are bulletproof. The town is surrounded by a security road with guard dogs posted at intervals. Residents of the Palestinian village in the valley once set Shilo's vineyards and fruit trees ablaze.
"You have to have perspective," said Siegel, who recalled his father's stories about race riots in Philadelphia and his family's efforts to save their Ridge Avenue hardware store from rioters. "Every place has its problems."
Moving here now would be a gamble, just as it was when the Siegels arrived in 1993. Then, as now, there was talk of peace and plans to return large portions of the West Bank, including the Siegels' hilltop, to the Palestinians. The family moved in anyway, gambling that the peace effort would fall through. It did.
There was also talk of peace in 2005, when Israel pulled out its settlements in the Gaza Strip. But rocket attacks from Palestinian extremists kept coming.
Many West Bank settlers now say a similar withdrawal from the West Bank would elicit more of the same.
The Siegels remain hopeful that peace will come. They just don't want their hilltop to be the bargaining chip that makes it happen.
See more at the Web site
of Amana, the settlers' group, via http://go.philly.com/settlersEndText