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My visit to Efrat in late June is wedged between the time that three yeshiva students — Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach — were abducted on a nearby road, and before their bodies were found. It is an oddly subdued moment in a region that seems to be perched on the edge of a volcano.
Nonetheless, everywhere you look, Israelis are extending their arms for a free ride — “tremping,” as they call it, girls as well as boys — oblivious to the dangers, or despite them. Public transportation has not kept up with settlement growth, so many residents, especially younger ones, see no alternative but to hitchhike. Since cars carry license plates in different colors depending on nationality (yellow for Israelis, white for Palestinians), it’s theoretically possible to avoid getting into the wrong car. Until it’s not.
Jerusalem is only 7.5 miles north, its iconic skyline visible when the weather is clear, and it offers an easy commute along Route 60, which is why Efrat is populated with professionals who work in the capital city. It is, to quote Mayor Oded Revivi, a “sleeping town.” Just an ordinary suburb.
Revivi drives me around Efrat in an older model SUV, appropriately messy, and large enough to accommodate his family of six children. Like so many of his constituents, he moved from his native Jerusalem to Efrat because it was affordable and convenient; now it is still convenient, but hardly as affordable. Home prices are skyrocketing — sometimes they are higher than in Jerusalem, Revivi says — with even a one-bedroom basement apartment fetching 2,000 to 3,000 shekels a month (around $600 to $875).
That hasn’t dampened demand, so construction projects have shifted from single-family homes to larger apartment blocks, suitable for families with four and five children, the average in Efrat, where almost all the population, and all the public schools, is religious.
On the information sheet that Revivi gives me in his office, it says that Efrat was established in 1983 and now has 9,500 residents, half of whom are 21 years old and younger. Then there’s this line: “Intended population: 25,000.”
This is how to normalize the occupation.
Revivi extols his city’s relations with its “Arab neighbors” — I rarely hear the word “Palestinian” used in this context — noting that there’s a reason Efrat is built long and narrow, 5 miles from end to end, but with a squiggly border instead of a straight one: “We want to have a peaceful relationship with our neighbors.”
The city is built only on parcels that had been owned by private individuals or were considered state-owned land, he says. As he shows me when we drive around the hilly, winding roads, Jewish residents live adjacent to a few enclaves owned, and in some cases cultivated, by Palestinians.