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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

West Bank Settlements Recruit Immigrants

ARIEL, West Bank — Olga Pelis was puzzled last summer when she listened to friends complain that their cars were being stoned as they drove back from evening concerts in Tel Aviv to this Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

The 49-year-old immigrant from Latvia says she had no idea that for a year and a half she had been living on territory Palestinians consider their own. She had come with her family at the invitation of settler recruiters, who had flown to Latvia and promised her a teaching job.

At the time, peace efforts were moving ahead and the region was relatively calm. But now it is engulfed in fighting, and fewer Israelis are willing to risk their lives settling in the West Bank. So Ariel and at least two other settlements are stepping up their drive to fill the gap with immigrants. The last such effort was two months ago when recruiters from Ariel went to Moscow.

But do the newcomers know what they're getting into, especially now? Settlement officials deny holding back the facts, while some immigrants say they were caught unaware.

Pelis said she began to figure out the story last summer when she read a newspaper article about Palestinian summer camps where children were given military training, including drills on assembling assault rifles and kidnapping enemies.

"I was surprised and I was wondering why are they doing so — what are their plans," said Pelis, who is originally from the Latvian town of Daugavpils. "Then, in September, everything started."

Ariel began sending recruiters to the former Soviet republics two years ago, and has attracted 3,000 immigrants. Over the past decade its population has nearly doubled to 17,000.

There are so many newcomers that Ariel's three clinics have Russian-speaking doctors.

Of Israel's roughly 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, about 13,500 live in the West Bank, making up about 7 percent of the total settler population of 200,000 living among some 2 million Palestinians.

It's a highly contentious issue. Palestinians are outraged at the settling of land they want for a future state, and the United States, as well as Israeli moderates such as the Peace Now movement, consider the settlements a serious obstacle to peace.

Amiram Goldblum, who monitors settlements for Peace Now, said recruiting immigrants reveals a desperation to fill empty houses because of shrinking demand, and undercuts official arguments that settlements must expand for natural population growth.

"Most of the growth of the city is by immigrants, because fewer Israelis are coming," agreed Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, who serves on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. The semi-governmental organization brings Jews to Israel but not, it says, to the disputed areas.

The debate about funneling immigrants to settlements began in 1990, when then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said Israel must control the West Bank "for future generations and for the mass immigration" of Soviet Jews.

The comments angered Palestinians, and Washington refused to back $10 billion in loans to resettle immigrants until after Shamir was voted out of office and Israel guaranteed the money would not be used in the disputed territories.

It was then Nachman quietly went ahead with a campaign to attract immigrants.

Some immigrants interviewed in Ariel said the recruiters never told them they might become targets of the Palestinians. Some said they didn't even realize Ariel was beyond the so-called "Green Line" between Israel proper and the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

The emissaries travel to Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakstan and other central Asian countries to speak to groups. Representatives from metal factories near Ariel travel with the emissaries, bringing job offers. Immigrants get free computer training and Hebrew and English classes, one month of free rent and other benefits.

Pelis recalls standing on the edge of the hilltop near her home marveling at the vista of dusty hills, olive groves and Palestinian villages with minarets.

"I didn't realize this at all," she said. "When I was looking down at those Arab villages it seemed very nice. There was no sign of any danger."

Pelis said she, her husband Simon and their 24-year-old son Dennis don't plan to leave because they think life in Israel proper is just as dangerous.

Also, coming from Latvia where her husband's parents had to hide their religion, she feels that she's doing what she's "supposed to do."

"I understand that this is a new life and I chose it myself," she said.