MEVO DOTAN, WEST BANK—"We're fed up,"taunted the sign in the house that had been abandoned for more than three months. Staring down onto Bar-Or Street from the second-floor window, the crudely lettered Hebrew looked as if it had been scrawled by the owners in a last-minute fit of contempt.
Even without the sign, the symptoms of attrition in this northern West Bank hilltop settlement are impossible to miss. The deserted streets are lined with overgrown yards and split-levels with windows shuttered tight.
Ariyeh Citronovich, a member of the settlement's leadership committee, watched it flourish in the 1990s. Now, strolling down Bar-Or Street with hands in his pockets, he describes an eroded community struggling to stay on its feet.
"This neighborhood was once full, but now it's at 50 percent," he says. "See the first house? That's empty." He gestures to the next dwelling on the block. "There's an empty house. ... There's my house." At the end of the street, he points out the sign in the window. "It's tough to see something like that. It's a shame. They're all friends who left."
The Israeli government says the number of settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza has surged, despite three years of violence with the Palestinians. But there are a handful of shrinking settlements like Mevo Dotan, where the number of families has dropped from about 80 to 40 since the start of the second intifada. These are also the kind of settlements that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he'll give up in his unilateral separation plan if the Palestinians don't come to the negotiating table soon.
Citronovich doesn't blame his friends who left. Like most of those who moved to Mevo Dotan after its founding in 1981, he did not bring the ideological or religious zeal of settlers in some other parts in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The secular Israelis here were attracted by government-subsidized housing, an intimate community, and the picturesque vista of the plowed valley below.
But ever since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, Mevo Dotan has felt like a place under siege. There are army pillboxes around the perimeter of the settlement to fend off potential infiltrators from the Palestinian villages located less than a mile to the north and southeast. Few residents dare to leave the settlement without a military escort—army jeeps depart every hour. The idyllic hillocks that attracted these Israelis to Mevo Dotan also offer cover to would-be snipers, making the residents harder to protect than settlers in the heart of the Gaza Strip, where the terrain is flat.
"It requires the deployment of a lot of army forces," says Citronovich. "There are soldiers stationed in the settlements. There are night and daytime operations in the field."
To reach Israel, residents must traverse roads that lead through Palestinian villages. Since 2001, three residents have been killed on those roads, each incident spurring a new exodus. Every month or so there's an ambush. In the last year, the settlement's psychological isolation from Israel became a physical reality when Mevo Dotan was left on the Palestinian side of Israel's infamous West Bank security barrier.
Mevo Dotan Chairwoman Yael Ben Yakov, a founding member, remembers when Sharon visited in 1991 to christen one of the settlement's neighborhoods. "He said settlements were not an obstacle to peace, but an obstacle to war." But last month Sharon said that he's willing to abandon isolated settlements that are costly to defend—an accurate description of Mevo Dotan and a handful of other settlements in the northern West Bank.
"I'm waiting for it," says Eilat Amram, a 34-year-old mother of four. She and other residents say they are trapped. They can't afford to rent an apartment in Israel while paying off the mortgage on a now worthless piece of real estate. Only government-initiated evacuation would allow them to leave, because they would likely receive financial compensation.
Amram works at the settlement's day-care center, where a soldier in a helmet and bulletproof vest guards the door. There would be no work at the day center if not for the children of six Orthodox Jewish families who moved to Mevo Dotan from the Golan Heights last summer into newly built homes that had stood empty for two years.
She says her living room has no electricity because no electrician will come to the settlement to fix it. Family and friends are too scared to visit, and it's difficult for the Amrams to go to Israel, because they must either sleep over or return to the settlement in daylight. "It's like a ghetto," says Amram. "Like you're not connected to Israel. We feel cut off from the world. Can you live like that?"
Amram recalls a rainy day last year when she and her husband decided to chance the roads without an escort, betting the inclement weather would discourage an ambush. On their return trip, they found a neighbor, Tsiyon Bushiryon, sitting upright in his car on the side of the road—shot to death.
"He was sitting there peacefully, like he was reading. It was like a dream," she tells me. "Ever since, whenever I see a movie, I think about Booshi. If you don't die from the shooting, you die from fear."
Sharon's suggestion of a withdrawal from remote settlements is a reason for hope for settlers like Amram, but she's not yet convinced the government will go through with it. "I believe that we're bargaining chips for the negotiations," she says. "I want a home. Once I have a home, I'll be able to leave here. We're hoping that maybe, maybe there will be an evacuation."
Even among the die-hards of the leadership committee, words of resilience are mixed with strain. Citronovich explains that the West Bank settlers are Israel's backbone because they are first in the line of fire, but then he confides, "We're scared too."
But founder Yael Ben Yakov, isn't about to give up—even if it means a radical makeover for this settlement. She plans to lure more families like the group of Orthodox from the Golan, infusing Mevo Dotan with the religious nationalist fervor that drives Jewish settlers to cling to any corner of the West Bank or Gaza.
"We want them to strengthen the settlement," Ben Yakov says. "We're not ending it here."