Those devils in the settlements. In reality, those “colonist” devils, using a word that evokes the cruel memories of exploitation and imperialism. These days, everyone is talking about them - even the G8 - demanding a “freeze” of their presence in the West Bank. And the idea comes from President Obama himself. In the popular imagination, the colonists keep their rifles by their side, devastate Palestinian olive trees, are religious fanatics, and breed like rabbits, turning their “natural growth” into a devastating weapon. Today, common wisdom says that a freeze is the only way to go.
But what exactly is a settler? We went around quite a bit to check things out, studying olive trees, maps, laws, history. First, the settler is a tiny figure in the Middle Eastern conflict. The fact that he is a political giant today has little to do with a jihad that - since the 1920s - has forbidden Arabs to see Israel as a state firmly anchored amidst the Islamic Umma. And whether that Umma is seen in religious or pan-Arabic terms is of little importance. In the eyes of many of the Islamic faithful, Israel itself is just one big settlement. Second, even though US representative Mitchell and Netanyahu might be on the verge of presenting a six-month suspension of the settlements’ internal growth, many villages and communities have been blocked for years. Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, a large, blossoming settlement in Gush Etzion, is quite blunt: “When young people here decide to get married, they know it’s time to pack their bags. Everything has been at a standstill since the time of the Roadmap.
We’ve already been strangled. Prices are as high as in Tel Aviv.” A leader of the area of Shilo, Yehiel Leiter, points out five houses on the top of a hill. “They’re the same as thirty years ago. Except that sometimes, a trailer here and there is turned into a brick house, in secret.” Frozen. That is the way it is for all of the settlements except for three. Since 2007, the population of 21 settlements in the West Bank has remained the same or fallen, while 74 have seen a rise of no more than 100 people. Only Modi’in Illit, Betar Illit, and Ma’ale Adumin, three communities inside the security fence - which could easily be left in peace with a territorial agreement if the Palestinians were actually interested in peace - represent 57 percent of the natural growth, i.e. 110,000 inhabitants of a total of 285,000 in the West Bank. Instead of making a din about “freezing” the settlements, attention should be concentrated on three of them, establishing which ones are untouchable and in exchange for what, while the others are negotiable. In other words, it would be much better for everyone involved if there were peace meetings instead of rhetoric.
Most of the time, the settlers are normal people, just persevering and tough, who see themselves as part of a work in progress: Israel. They are not convinced, as Leiter puts it, that “here in Judea, I have to leave room for a small authoritarian, Islamic state, which might be Iranian like Hamas.” The settlers include both people who wanted inexpensive housing, and dangerous extremists. The latter are generally idealists who see Judea and Samaria, occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967, as indispensable for reasons linked to history and defense. The Israeli governments in power over the years have oscillated, generating a great deal of confusion, either considering those lands as a currency of exchange for peace with the Palestinians or as freed land that could give tiny Israel security and protection as well as historic memories. Many people care nothing for the Bible, but it is a nice document to produce when it quotes your address. Even if some settlements cannot be forfeited and others can, Netanyahu has not explained which ones he intends to give up. On their side, almost all the settlers state the reasons people give who have built their homes with their bare hands and risked their lives every night when they came home. And who complied when the tragic evacuation of Gaza was decided.
Amid the oat stubble on the red earth terraces, adorned with grape vines and olive trees in the valleys throughout Judea and Samaria, the most cinematic scenes are those of the teenagers. Sometimes they are on horseback and always in groups, their long hair flying in the wind, their skullcaps askew, and their ritual fringes peeking out from under faded t-shirts, and the girls surprisingly agile in their long skirts. They feel like rebels from the time of Judas Maccabeus, who challenged the Greeks to their death. They are edgy young people, their heads full of Biblical history, who do not want to convince anyone and will not be convinced. They certainly are not the only young people around. They have peers in the neighborhood who are studious and disciplined and come from idealistic but law-abiding families. Families like Yehiel Leiter’s: five children, youngsters with friendly faces and good manners. They have faces glowing with solidarity and community spirit, and who are the most daring soldiers in the army, just like the left-wing youth from the kibbutzim used to be. The ruffians among them are the ones who make forays into the Arab olive groves and fight with the Israeli police. They are the young people who bring a tent and a trailer, and set themselves up on the top of a hill because there lies a memory of history. These are the stereotypes of the settlers. But even the gentlest of them, like Yair Hirsch of Achy, who produces three flavors of olive oil, believes - as do the others - that they would not stop if the Palestinians managed to throw him out of his home. He says they would fight for Tel Aviv. Yair, a peaceful man, knows he is paying a high price for his choice: political hatred, a life of danger, and often one of scarcity and solitude. Ninety-eight percent of the settlers have nothing to do with the stereotype that have turned the colonies into something even more urgent to dismantle than the Iranian atomic bomb. Ambassador George Mitchell certainly knows that the settlements are not illegal. However, a number of outposts located beyond the borders of the communities are, and the government intends to dismantle twenty-two of them immediately. They are scattered throughout the West Bank, for instance in the area of Kyriat Arba, right next to Hebron. That is where the most aggressive colonists live, where Elyakim Haezni, one of the toughest leaders, asks us - and he is not religious - why he should think of leaving? Why shouldn’t the Jews live near the cave of Machpelah, with the large tomb for Abraham and Sara built by Herod the Great. Why? Just because a mosque was built on top of it? Why should the Jews be thrown out of the first capital of King David? And what is this undisputed idea of an Arab world cleaned of Jews, while a million four hundred thousand Israeli Arabs live in Israel as free citizens? What does Amnesty say, asks a sarcastic Haezni. And what if a future Palestinian state were willing to have him as a citizen? First of all, he says, he could never live under a dictatorship. And second, and he cites Hobbs, “life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’, especially short.”
Even the settler movement considers Kyriat Arba a borderline case, a spiral of blood and violence. But there are all kinds of settlers: religious and not religious, ideologues and simple people, those leading an austere life and hippies, men and women and many children. Oded Revivi, a lawyer and mayor of Efrat, wanted a nice house in Jerusalem without having to spend too much. Today he is proud of a coexistence with the Arabs who live and cultivate their olive trees inside the settlement itself. But he also points to the capital in the distance and says that, without defending this small piece of land, the attacks would multiply and the missiles would rain down from Gaza as they do on Sderot.
In another part of Jerusalem, we climbed up the top of Kida in the valley of Shilo to meet the young Tzofia Dorot, a tanned, active mother of two. Her officer husband is far away and a few neighbors live as she does, in clean, well-cared for trailers. Tzofia has just managed to open a kindergarten, and she works as a physiotherapist. But as it is on the list of the twenty-two outposts, the windy Kida is doomed to disappear. In answer, just today, Tzofia received a visit from a Tel Aviv architect. It is a marvelous place for tourism, he told her, and those three trailers are already rooms where people can come for the weekend to enjoy the nature there. Not far away is another outpost, Givat Arel. Daniel Bin Nun built it with his own hands in memory of Arel, his brother who was killed, as was his father. The fresh air is not free. The outpost contains a therapeutic horse stable where Daniel treats 100 children from all over Israel.
The memory of the many who paid with their lives is almost everywhere. Below Eli, you cross through a bottleneck where a Palestinian sharpshooter eliminated ten people, one by one, with an old rifle. Sara lives in Eli. She is the wife of 32-year-old Commander Uri Klein who threw himself on a grenade during the war in Lebanon to keep his soldiers from being hit. Instead, in Gush, at Tekoa, we visited the home of Sherry Mandell, whose son Koby, 13, was stoned to death in a cave he was exploring. The settlers want people to know that they are not supported by the state, as is often affirmed. Yehiel Leiter took me around wineries and olive oil plants. Most of all, he explained, security: “Territorial continuity is everything for Israel. For example, inhabiting the valley of Shilo, even from west to east, in other words from the coast toward the Jordan is the only way for Israel to have contact with the Jordan Valley.” Those who have lived through all the wars, and all the Palestinian rejections of all the peace offers from 1948 to Abu Mazen’s very recent rebuff of Olmert, those who have not seen a hand held out, but only terrorism and the hope of reducing the size of Israel bit by bit, are not interested in pleasing international public opinion. They want to defend their country. There is not only Jordan. Beyond that is Iraq, Syria, and then Iran. In general, Israel cannot imagine the idea of having Palestinian, and perhaps Iranian, missiles five hundred meters from the airport, or from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Haifa was recently bombed by the Hezbollah, and Ashdod from Gaza. In short, says Yehiel, let’s stop fooling ourselves. Even the Americans know that without territorial space you are at risk. And Netanyahu’s promise of a demilitarized Palestinian state is not enough because there is no guarantee that it will remain so over the years.
History, territorial defense and, ultimately, a sense of identity: those who do not like this never will, no matter how many explanations are given, says Shaul Goldstein, head of the organization of the Gush Katif area. He has an oak tree in his garden that he planted twenty-two years ago, but he knows that many will agree to move if they are certain of a home and a job inside the Green Line. But you see, he insists on adding: “Sharon told Bush that he would dismantle Gaza if Bush promised an exchange of land for some settlements that we cannot give up. Which is what Bush did, with a letter. Bibi should clearly state which ones they are. And the world should state clearly for once and for all whether history is important. Whether heritage is important. Because, if it is not, everything changes. We have to reconsider the concept of nations for all the peoples in the world, and not just for us.”
Origially appeared in Il Giornale