Late in January, Efrat Tawil sat in her mobile home in the large northern West Bank city-settlement of Ariel, amidst piles of bed linens and boxes of books. She and her husband, Rabbi Zion Tawil, were preparing to move into their newly built home on a hill overlooking Ariel University. Moving day had come in the nick of time; the roof of the trailer in which they had been living with their large family for the past nine years had collapsed due to a recent heavy snowfall.
Zion Tawil is the rabbi of Netzer-Ariel, a community of some 100 religious Zionist families — 20 of whom were evacuated from the Gush Katif settlement of Netzarim during Israel’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005. For the past decade, the group has been living in temporary dwellings. With their current move to the comfortable, spacious and permanent homes they have built for themselves in Ariel, these families have become the only community evacuated from Gaza to resettle permanently — as a community — over the Green Line in the West Bank.
Although she is happy to be moving in to her new house, Mrs. Tawil said she hadn’t really minded living in a trailer for nine years.
“It’s true that with seven daughters and 15 grandchildren it was a bit problematic, but I didn’t really pay attention to the living conditions, because as soon as we got here, we got right into our mission,” she told The Times of Israel as she took a short break from packing.
The mission spoken of by the rabbi’s wife is the social and religious outreach work to the mainly secular Ariel population that the Netzer-Ariel community has been doing since its arrival in the city immediately following the disengagement from Gaza.
From Netzarim to Ariel
The Tawils moved to Netzarim, which was for all intents and purposes an Israeli Jewish enclave within Gaza City, four years before the Israeli pullout. In those final years — at the height of the Second Intifada — transportation to and from the settlement was permitted only with armed military escorts.
Netzer-Ariel executive director Arik Yefet lived in Netzarim for three years longer than the rabbi’s family and recalled it as “a very special place both in terms of its beauty and its people.”
Originally founded in 1972 as a secular Hashomer Hatzair outpost, Netzarim became a religious kibbutz in 1984. Some years later, its status was changed from a kibbutz to an agricultural village.
According to Yefet, relations with the Palestinians were good until the terror of the Second Intifada started.
Netzarim was the last Gaza settlement to be evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces, and its residents refused to acknowledge ahead of time the fact that they were going to have to leave. They were planting, building and praying up to the very last moment.
“We didn’t believe it would happen, so we didn’t prepare. We left our house with dishes in the sink,” said Yefet, who likened the trauma of the eviction to that of losing a limb.
Not having made any plans as to where to go, the former inhabitants of Netzarim were pleased to accept an invitation to stay in the dormitories of the College of Judaea and Samaria, which is today Ariel University. The late Ron Nachman, founder and former mayor of Ariel, also warmly welcomed the evacuees.
By the start of the 2005-2006 academic year, when the college needed back its dorms for its students, the evicted settlers had divided into two groups. Most of the families decided to establish a moshav in southern Israel, close to the border with Egypt, which they called Bnei Netzarim (Children of Netzarim). Twenty families believed divine providence had brought them to Ariel and chose to stay and strengthen the religious Zionist presence in the city and the surrounding area. Since then, another approximately 80 similar-minded families have come from all around Israel to join the community.
While most of the remaining families moved into mobile homes set up just off Ramat Hagolan Street, a few settled in communities not far from Ariel. The Fogel family, five of whose members were murdered in their home in the Itamar settlement, a half-hour drive northeast from Ariel, by Palestinian terrorists in 2011, was among those evacuated from Netzarim.
An influx of Orthodoxy
Alongside the temporary housing, the group set up a synagogue, a yeshiva, a daycare center, and a preschool. The community offers Judaic studies classes to Ariel University students and local residents, and engages in ongoing social welfare and charity projects that involve feeding the hungry and counseling at-risk youth.
According to Ariel Mayor Eliyahu Shaviro, the Netzer-Ariel community has been a most positive addition to his city.
“They are an amazing community. They are well integrated into Ariel and they do fantastic work with different groups within our population, especially with our youth,” Shaviro told The Times of Israel.
The mayor said he fully supported the Netzer-Ariel community’s taking over the leadership of the local religious elementary school, turning it into a regional Talmud Torah. The group has grown the school’s enrollment from 37 to 230 in just two years, and expects enrollment to rise to about 300 in fall 2015.
“We’re the capital of Samaria and we like to offer services broadly to the entire region. Ariel provides regional solutions, and the Netzer-Ariel school is part of that,” said Shaviro.
The 90 girls and 140 boys currently enrolled in the school are packed into crowded, gender-segregated facilities as they study a curriculum that includes more religious studies than are offered in state religious schools. While the boys learn math, science and carpentry in addition to Torah, they do not learn any English (the girls do get English lessons).
“Families send their children here because of our single-sex Torah education and ultra-Zionist orientation,” explained school administrator Yoni Sacks.
It used to be that Netzer-Ariel families had to bus their children 18 kilometers to school in the Eli settlement. Now, almost all the community’s children attend the Netzer-Ariel school, and students from settlements outside Ariel are bused to it.
Sacks credits the Netzer-Ariel community with creating an atmosphere in overwhelmingly secular Ariel that is inviting to religious families.
“Ariel was very secular a decade ago, and there was very little support for religious living. Since the families from Netzarim moved here, the overall religious community has grown from 20 families to more than 250 families,” he said.
“The Netzer-Ariel yeshiva has been at the vanguard of creating a strong Torah-influenced community and vibe that has attracted families that find it too expensive to live in the country’s center.”
As Efrat Tawil sorted her family’s belongings in the mobile home with the collapsed roof, her husband was busy sweeping up construction debris in their new, five-bedroom house on Beit El Street. He took a few minutes to show this reporter around the home, pointing out the customizations he and his wife were able to make.
The Tawils’ house is one of 48 homes already constructed in the newly built neighborhood for Netzer-Ariel community members. The plan is for a total of 98 houses on the parcel of land that, according to Yefet, the community collectively purchased five years ago from a wealthy Arab-Israeli individual who lives within the Green Line.
“The city had apparently tried numerous times to purchase the land from this individual, yet the conditions set were too difficult. As Netzer-Ariel was searching for a parcel of land to buy for our permanent neighborhood, the seller sold an option (meaning that in exchange for a downpayment, he’d be willing to wait a certain amount of time in order for the rest of the sum to be accumulated and transferred). When this option suddenly presented itself, the community went ahead with it and the area finally became open for building,” said Binyamin Schwartz, who does development work for Netzer-Ariel and showed this reporter around various sites in Ariel related to the community.
Shaviro confirmed to The Times of Israel that, indeed, a deal to purchase this particular piece of land had not happened for a long time due to economic reasons.
“Housing prices were low for many years in Ariel and it wasn’t worth it to buy land and develop houses on it,” the mayor said. “There was no political issue involved. The price is what held things up.”
Since the purchase of the land, it has been up to the individual Netzer-Ariel families, who received some government compensation for having been evacuated from Gaza, to come up with the funds to build their houses, which Schwartz said are each valued at approximately NIS 1.3 million ($337,100).
According to Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot, an organization that employs land-use research to challenge policies and practices that enable the dispossession of Palestinians from their land in the West Bank, the account given by Netzer-Ariel about the purchase of the land for their permanent homes does not add up.
Etkes’s information indicates that the land in question was almost surely declared state land by Israel in the early 1980s on the basis of an interpretation of an Ottoman law still employed, which allows state appropriation of land not cultivated intensively enough. Etkes’s best guess is that the land originally belonged to farmers from the neighboring Palestinian village of Salfit.
“There were cases of ‘state declarations’ that were done in order to hide fishy land transactions. I’m not aware of such transactions in Ariel, though, and to the best of my knowledge this is not the case here,” Etkes told The Times of Israel.
Still, Netzer-Ariel’s version of events doesn’t make sense to him. “The story seems illogical based on the information that I have regarding the land status in Ariel,” he said.
It seemed that, as she prepared for her big move, legal issues were not foremost on Efrat Tawil’s mind. She said that what made her happy, was that she and the other families of Netzer-Ariel had “succeeded in conquering the mountain,” as she put it.
“We are making a foothold and settling the Land of Israel. This is much bigger than just moving in to a new house,” she said before excusing herself to go back to her packing.