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.

I pursue the point with the Mayor. I remind him that the American Secretary of State, James Baker, recently described the continued establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories as one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the Middle East. Ron Nachman laughs. For a moment he looks less like a middle-weight boxer, more like a little boy. ‘Ariel an obstacle to peace? If I’m an obstacle to peace then why was there no peace between 1948 and 1967? My family came to this land from Russia in 1883, I am a fourth-generation Palestinian Jew. Why should I listen to George Bush and James Baker telling me that I’m an obstacle to peace? I have lived with the Arabs, I know them. I see that they are all the same – they want to destroy Israel.’ I ask him if he hates Arabs. ‘No, I don’t hate them, but I know w hat they’re like ... I believe in co-existence, that’s why I’m here in Ariel, and that’s why I will never leave.’

Most Israelis have heard of Ron Nachman, the Mayor of Ariel. A few years ago he made his own television commercial, selling the town like the soap powder of the same name. ‘The fastest growing city of Israel’, he called it then, ‘the capital of Samaria’. And still he’s offering the same set of dreams. You want fresh air, a beautiful environment, a dream-home with a low mortgage and a sense of participation in Israel’s future? Come to Ariel.

Nachman is a natural salesman. We leave his office and begin a tour of the town in his mayoral saloon. We drive slowly: there are many things he wants to show me. ‘This is a new neighbourhood, it’ll be finished in a few months,’ he tells me as we pass a vast construction site. A concrete mixer is blocking the road, reversing into a narrow gateway. ‘All this construction is being done by private firms, rather than the Government,’ he says. ‘They get it done quicker, and they build the kind of houses that people want. That’s the great thing about Ariel, people want to live here. All these plots have been sold already – look, you can see the signs on those foundations: everything sold.’

We drive past factories and warehouse planted incongruously on an adjacent hilltop. The Mayor continues to bombard me with information about Ariel’s growth. ‘We have seventy factories here, covering four hundred acres; already we employ three thousand people right here in the town.’

We pass an Arab worker walking down the road. He is wearing a denim jacket covered in white dust. Beyond him, a group of labourers, Arabs, are working on scaffolding surrounding a substantial detached house. It has a redtiled roof with two solar panels. At one end of a raised platform a works supervisor is sitting in a canvas chair reading a newspaper. ‘We have five hundred Arabs working for us,’ Nachman tells me. ‘They like to work here ... Ariel is an open city. Look around you, do you see any soldiers, any patrols?’ Indeed there is no sign of any security at all.

‘Where is the intifada? I don’t see it,’ says the Mayor. ‘Let me tell you something. The intifada is dead, and do you know who killed it?’ I know what he is going to say, so I say it for him: ‘Saddam Hussein.’

‘Last week,’ he goes on, clearly enjoying himself, ‘the mukhtar (head man) from the village at the bottom of this hill came to ask me if he could be connected to our water supply. It’s the first time he has been to see me for three and a half years, since the intifada began. They use our facilities, our roads, our phone lines, they even travel in our buses. Believe me, this isn’t South Africa.’

I remind him that the Israeli settlement of this land runs counter to the wishes of the United Nations; that almost every government in the world has criticised Israel for its confiscation of Palestinian property in the Occupied Territories. Nachman smiles, perhaps savouring his own sense of righteousness. ‘This land that we have built on, it was never cultivated by private landholders. It was never registered as individually-owned property.’ He points to a neighbouring rocky outcrop. ‘We’re going to build there,’ he says, ‘but you see where those olive trees are? That is cultivated land – we can’t build on that. If we tried to confiscate that land we would be taken through the courts and we would lose.’ Everything the Israelis do in the West Bank, he assures me, is done according to the laws of Jordan, the British Mandate and the Ottoman Empire. ‘I studied law at university,’ he says: ‘believe me, I know what I’m talking about.’

We pass a woman with peroxide blonde hair, her skin very pale in the strong sun of early summer. The Mayor greets her in Hebrew. They chat for a couple of minutes, she laughs and walks on. ‘She’s from the Soviet Union,’ he tells me. ‘She arrived eight months ago, and already her Hebrew is very good.’ I ask him how many Soviet Jews are living in Ariel. His amicable expression slips. ‘I don’t think that is a clever question ... The last time Jews were counted was in the Holocaust. We don’t have Soviet Jews here, or any other kinds of Jews, we just have Israelis – they are Israelis as soon as they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport.’ I ask again, but still the Mayor will not give me a figure. It’s a sensitive issue: the Bush Administration, the Soviets and the European Community have all warned the Israeli Government against settling the hundreds of thousands of incoming Soviet Jews in the Occupied Territories. In Ariel the warning has not been heeded. It seems likely that hundreds of Soviet immigrants have already settled in the town – some barely aware that they are living, not in Israel, but in the West Bank.

There’s a call for the Mayor on the car telephone. His assistant tells him that a delegation of international parliamentarians is about to arrive. Ron Nachman has promised to show them around. He looks at his watch and decides to drive on: there are still things he wants me to see. We pass the Ariel campus of the Bar-Ilan University – a technical education centre for fifteen hundred students – and pull off the road to admire the view across the hilltops. A light breeze is blowing, carrying with it the sound of hammering from a distant building site. Half mile away in the bottom of the valley cars are buzzing up and down the road to Tel Aviv. The Samarian hills are turning brown, the lush grass and wild flowers of early spring have long since died. An Arab village shelters in the lee of a hill away to the left; its subdued, blanched stone houses follow the contours of the slope. The minaret of the mosque rises above the neighbouring roofs like a mill chimney in a Pennine village. Around the village are olive groves, arranged in terraces. The trees – some twisted and gnarled, others newly-planted – stand in regiments, soaking up the afternoon sun.

Mayor Ron Nachman is standing beside me, his thoughts intrude on mine. ‘Here you can see very well the strategic reasons for building Ariel,’ he says. ‘We sit on top of these mountains to cut the area into squares like a chessboard. By building Ariel, and all the other new settlements in this region, we have cut the connection between Nablus and Ramallah – we have separated the two main Palestinian towns north of Jerusalem.’

He points to the horizon dancing in the heat. ‘Israel is very vulnerable. Before 1967 it was just nine miles from the sea to the Jordanian border. Look, even from here you can see the Mediterranean. Without these towns and settlements how could we protect our roads from the coastal plain to the Jordan Valley? If we were not here the Arabs could cut Israel in two.’ According to Nachman, a ‘Palestinian entity’ in the West Bank would, by definition, threaten the security of Israel. ‘I plan to prevent a Palestinian state,’ he says with his eyes still fixed on the distant horizon, ‘and by staying here I will prevent it.’

Unlike many of the other Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank – but in common with the majority of Israelis – Ron Nachman is not driven by a messianic religious commitment to the Biblical land of Israel; he does not follow the teachings of religious-nationalist rabbis like Tzvi Yehuda Kook. The Mayor wants to see the Israeli Government annex the Occupied Territories for straightforward, secular reasons. Israel must expand, he believes, simply to survive. His is an aggressive brand of Zionism forged in Israel’s triumph over the Arabs in 1967.

Ariel reflects the secular pragmatism of its mayor. Not one synagogue has been built in the town in 13 years. ‘I would say that 85 per cent of people in this town are not actively religious,’ Nachman tells me as we head back to his office. On the way he stops the car for a final time. He wants me to see Ariel’s luxury hotel, which will be ready to open in just three months. We climb up a dirt track towards a sprawling concrete block painted a startling white. It looks like a shopping-mall transported from the American Midwest. ‘You’ve seen Sun City?’ asks Nachman, his enthusiasm undimmed: ‘well this is going to be the Sun City of Israel, I’m trying to get a licence for a casino.’ This hotel is the apotheosis of Nachman’s vision – final confirmation that his Ariel will be as godless, as accessible and as Israeli as Tel Aviv or Haifa.

The architect of the hotel is called over to explain his design. He tells me there are going to be three waterfalls and an extra-large swimming-pool. He also tells me that I can buy one of the ‘hotel units’ if I want to. ‘That means you split the profit from your unit with the hotel,’ he explains, ‘and you get to spend one free month in your unit every year.’ I thank him, but decline the offer. ‘Hey, no problem,’ he says. ‘We’ve sold 32 units already, we’ve got people coming in from all over the world.’

As we leave the hotel, I notice a solitary stone house left standing by the side of the track leading to the reception area. The house is covered in vines, and olive trees stand guard around it. A wire fence separates it from the new developments further up the hill. ‘That house was built under orders from the PLO,’ he says following my gaze. ‘They thought they could stop us building here, but nobody will stop us living in our own land.’

I ask the Mayor to tell me what rights he thinks the Palestinians of the West Bank should be granted if their land is completely annexed by the Israeli Government. Should they be granted full citizenship, should they be allowed to vote in Israeli elections?

‘Look, the Palestinians already have a state,’ he tells me, pointing a finger towards the Jordan Valley. ‘When we annex the occupied territories they will become citizens of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. At a local level, they will be able to vote for their own municipal councils within Israel, but in national elections they will elect members of the Jordanian Parliament.’ ‘So you would force the Palestinians to move across the River Jordan?’, I ask him. ‘No, not at all. I wouldn’t force anybody to leave; they will simply have to recognise that they already have a state which is separate from the state of Israel.’

We take the main link-road back into the centre of Ariel. We cruise down President G. Bush Street (‘I admired Bush for his determination and commitment in the Gulf, so I named a street after him,’ the Mayor tells me) and we pull up outside the prefabricated, single-storey municipal office. The delegation of international parliamentarians has just arrived. ‘At least you’ve seen the scale of what we are building here,’ he says as we get out of his car. ‘I want you to appreciate that what we’re doing here is irreversible.’ ‘But there’s nothing irreversible about buildings,’ I say: ‘isn’t it possible that one day Ariel may be a Palestinian city, with Palestinians living in your houses, using your factories and enjoying your swimming-pools?’ Mayor Ron Nachman simply smiles and shakes my hand. For a man so utterly convinced of his own rectitude such a question does not merit consideration. He strides off in the direction of his office to offer his visitors from America and Europe a glimpse of Israel’s future.