Reproduced from The Record, Monday, March 22, 2004
by Michael J. Wildes, Mayor, City of Englewood
2-10 N. Van Brunt Street
Englewood , NJ 07631
West Bank mayor appeals for help
ENGLEWOOD - The Web site for the Israeli city of Beitar Illit boasts of clean streets, cheap homes, and a security fence that protects its booming population from attacks by a nearby Arab village.
But it also notes that the city is without an emergency room, special education classes, and parks.
On Sunday, the city's mayor, Yitschak Pindrus, asked 25 local politicians and members of Bergen County's religious Jewish community for help. The gathering at Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes' office was Pindrus' last stop on a four-day junket in the New York area, during which he said he raised close to $1 million.
About five miles southwest of Jerusalem, Beitar Illit is one of the fastest-growing settlements in the Palestinian-populated West Bank. The city's growth has frustrated those who say the expansion of settlements is an affront to attempts at peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Founded in 1990 by 20 ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, the desert city has swelled to 30,000 in population, and the growth shows no sign of slowing. About 1,800 children were born in Beitar Illit last year, and Pindrus said he recently approved construction of 3,000 new apartments.
"When people ask how many people live in Beitar Illit, my response is always, 'What time is it?'" Pindrus told a receptive audience, which included rabbis, Bergen County Freeholder James Carroll, and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson of Englewood.
Many Jewish settlers believe they have a religious duty to settle in the West Bank. But others say the creeping expansion of settlements into Palestinian territory - condoned by the Israeli government - has hampered the U.S.-sponsored peace plan. In the peace plan, adopted in June, the Israelis promised to "freeze all settlement activity" in exchange for security from terrorist attacks. Neither side has met its obligation.
The Bush administration has repeatedly rebuked Israelis for expanding settlements and Palestinian leaders for failing to prevent terrorist attacks. Even among Israelis, the country's roughly 155 settlements are a sore spot. Much of the country's secular majority resents the tax breaks the government grants settlers and the amount of money spent to provide them with security.
Wildes, a member of Englewood's 750-family observant Jewish community, said he supported the expansion of Beitar Illit because it brings stability to a volatile region.
"I feel passionate about giving supplies, education, and lending a hand to anyone who would root a democracy, let alone to a municipality that has been regarded nationally for years," he said.
The sister of a Bergenfield accountant at Sunday's gathering moved to Beitar Illit from Jerusalem four years ago because she could afford more space there for a growing family.
"They had two children and wanted to buy a house and settle down," said Tsachi Meyers, 31, who said he regularly donates money to support the settlement's projects. "The prices were reasonable there, and they were looking forward to a future in an up-and-coming city." Pindrus said the peace plan and previous attempts at peace never disputed the right of Beitar Illit to exist. However, critics say the Israeli government is encouraging the city to expand its borders. Last fall, the Israeli government chopped down Palestinian olive trees to widen the city's boundaries by 200 feet.
The expansion was needed to heighten security, Pindrus said. He cited a recent incident in which a Palestinian child fired a stone with a slingshot through a Jewish family's window during Sabbath services, shattering a ceremonial wine glass.
"We don't touch any Palestinian land," Pindrus said. "But there is nothing I can do when a Palestinian sends his 5-year-old child. I don't need the fence. I don't want the fence or the olive trees. But if a village sends a 5-year-old to shoot a rock at a kiddush cup, then I have to build a fence."
Paid for by Friends of Michael J. Wildes, Claudia Colbert, Treasurer