What Kind of Israel Do Settlers Want?

A Journey Across the Green Line

Dividing Line: The paved road from Efrat in the West Bank turns to gravel on its way to a Palestinian village.
Jane Eisner
Dividing Line: The paved road from Efrat in the West Bank turns to gravel on its way to a Palestinian village.

By Jane Eisner

Published July 14, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
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Jane Eisner’s special report, Across the Green Line, will run in two parts, starting today and continuing tomorrow.

Here’s how Ofra began as a Jewish community. Modern history puts the start date as April 1975. Ofra’s inhabitants will tell you that its real beginning goes back to the Book of Joshua, a lineage that makes them feel they have the right, and gives them the desire, to be there. That’s how it is in this part of the world. Time is dictated by ideology.

We do know that back in 1975, a group of Jewish activists wanted to establish a community at Baal Hazor, the highest mountain in the West Bank (which they call by the biblical name Samaria), where the fleeing Jordanian army had left a half-built military base. The activists quietly gathered supplies and moved in on April 20.

Meantime, one of them met with Shimon Peres, who was then the Israeli defense minister. And while accounts differ, it’s clear that Peres assented to the establishment of a temporary “work camp” with a limit of a couple of dozen men and women.

Within a month, the population grew with families and single people, who built a fence and toilets and cleaned the abandoned buildings. Within two years, apartments for more families were constructed, a cherry orchard had been planted and a synagogue was dedicated — built, actually, by the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Suburban Settler: Ruchie Avital has lived in Ofra for 27 years.
Jane Eisner
Suburban Settler: Ruchie Avital has lived in Ofra for 27 years.

If you go to Ofra now, you’ll find a gated community only 15 miles northeast from Jerusalem with — by latest count — 3,300 people, along with schools, markets, factories and an array of family homes that on a recent Thursday morning was as tranquil as any suburb.

Inside her home, Ruchie Avital gives me a welcome glass of cold water as she recalls how she came to Ofra 27 years ago and has raised five children within its cozy confines.

“It was very natural for us to come here, no different from the Galilee or the Negev,” she says in the clear tones of a professional translator, which is how she makes a living. “For us, living in Ofra is the same as living in Israel. It’s part of the biblical homeland.”

But Ofra is well beyond the Green Line that marks Israel’s internationally recognized border; well beyond the security barrier that the government erected seemingly to create its own de facto border; well beyond even Israel’s confusing official sanction, as many of its buildings are still considered “unauthorized” and Israel’s high court ruled that Ofra’s waste disposal plant is built on Palestinian land.

In fact, much of Ofra is built on land that was privately owned by Palestinians.

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