Ariel Diary

Stephen Sackur

Mayor Ron Nachman has some dramatic photographs of the last Scud attack on Tel Aviv. He wants to show them to me; he wants me to understand what they mean. ‘Come and look at this,’ he says and leads me away from his desk into an adjoining conference room. Dominating the far wall of this cheaply furnished office is a photograph some six feet wide and two feet high.

‘This was taken from a roof terrace across the street,’ he tells me. I see a sky of purplish black, a distant set of yellow lights, and in the foreground the boxy houses of Ariel town. On the right, high in the sky, is a trail of dazzling white light, a beautiful jagged tear on this canvas of black. Far away to the left, close to the indistinct pattern of yellow city lights are three more explosive trails, this time shorter and climbing steeply skyward. These are American Patriot missiles sent up to intercept the incoming Scud.

‘This picture I sent to George Bush,’ says Mayor Nachman, standing beside the photograph like a television weatherman next to his chart. ‘You know why I wanted him to see it?’ He smiles and looks back at the wall.

‘You see those lights in the distance? That’s Tel Aviv. You see the black space between here and Tel Aviv? Most of that is what you call the “West Bank”. Imagine what would happen if we gave all this land back to Yasser Arafat and his brothers in the PLO. We wouldn’t be talking about a few missiles launched from hundreds of miles away – we’d be talking about mortars, tanks and artillery within range of Tel Aviv. And you know what would happen to us? We’d be swimming in the Mediterranean Sea.’

Mr Nachman produces more photographs. Now he’s showing me how the town of Ariel came to be. ‘You see that tent? That’s how I settled in this place 13 years ago.’ I look at a sagging brown tent and a younger Ron Nachman, with a fuller face, bushy hair and extravagant sideburns – on his face the smile of a confident pioneer. Next is a snapshot of a woman petting a dog in the vastness of the Samarian hills. This is Mrs Nachman. ‘You see where she’s sitting? That’s exactly where you’re sitting now.’ I look out of the office window trying to identify the shapes of the hills. But the landscape has changed, hundreds of concrete houses perch on the surrounding ridge, and beyond them I can see factories and cranes. ‘Ariel stretches for 12 kilometres,’ my host tells me. ‘Ten thousand people live here now, within fourteen months we‘ll have fourteen thousand, and by 1995 we’re aiming for a population of twenty-five, maybe even thirty thousand Israelis.’

Another visual aid is produced: this time a map. Nachman puts a stubby finger on Ariel. ‘I call this place the belly button of Israel,’ he says. ‘We’re forty kilometres from Tel Aviv and exactly the same distance from the Jordan River.’ The map shows Israel’s eastern border running along the river; the West Bank and Gaza Strip have ceased to exist. This, however, is a statement of intent rather than a representation of fact: as yet Ariel sits, not in the heart of Israel, but in the middle of Occupied Territory.

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