Settlers Want Israel Tied to Past — But What About Future?

A Journey Across the Green Line

Agitator: David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community in Hebron, represents embattled Israeli settlers.
Jane Eisner
Agitator: David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community in Hebron, represents embattled Israeli settlers.

By Jane Eisner

Published July 15, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.
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Jane Eisner’s special report, Across the Green Line, is running in two parts, starting yesterday and continuing today. Read the first part here.

Days after the bodies of the three Israeli yeshiva students were found, defiant settlers established unauthorized outposts in their names. This is not a new phenomenon. Deep in the West Bank, Esh Kodesh was founded in 1999 in memory of Esh Kodesh Gilmore, a 25-year-old Israeli who was murdered by a Palestinian gunman while working as a security guard in East Jerusalem. His friends drove an old bus to a rocky hilltop not too far from the biblical town of Shiloh and vowed to stay.

The bus, its painted facade dry and cracked, remains at the center of this rural settlement, next to a playground and surrounded by bright-green vineyards fed by rich soil. The grapes are sold to wineries throughout Israel. A.Y. Katsof shows me around. Originally from Los Angeles, he’s lived in Esh Kodesh for four years with his wife and five children and has the swagger of those who take pleasure in challenging the establishment, especially his own establishment.

Rebel: A.Y. Katsof holds grapes grown in the outpost Esh Kodesh.
Jane Eisner
Rebel: A.Y. Katsof holds grapes grown in the outpost Esh Kodesh.

But he is not technically an outsider to that establishment. Esh Kodesh’s rusty caravans and stone houses receive electricity and water from Israel’s main grid. Its 30 families pay taxes. Katsof says he served 20 days in the military reserve last year. The 100 or so children who live at the outpost go to school in nearby Shiloh. And an Israel Defense Forces soldier stands guard from the tower in the center of the hilltop.

“All we need is a signature from the Ministry of Defense” and the outpost will be authorized, Katsof insists.

I ask him why he’s here, and he scoffs at the question.

“The quality of life!” he answers. “I hear leaves and birds, I hear water dripping on the trees. My kids play outside. There’s always a breeze, a ruach, a good spirit here.”

Obviously there’s something more than a love of nature drawing him here, where hostile neighbors surround him. He tells me how the Arabs disrupt the vineyards and ruin the fields. “You have to understand the Arab mentality,” he says. “By staying here on the mountain, we are keeping the valley safe. You wouldn’t let Al Qaeda sit on a rocky mountain. Soon as we leave here, it turns into Gaza.”

And do you worry about being evacuated? “Not every day,” Katsof says. “You plant trees, you raise children. You have a little fear of what’s going to happen. It’s much worse when it’s your own government stabbing you in the back.”

This is what’s so frustrating about these extreme settlers. They openly and eagerly defy the law, then react bitterly when — or more likely, if — the government actually responds.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank and home to a stubborn minority of Jews that feels understandably embattled because they are. “I have access to 3% of Hebron,” David Wilder, spokesman for the Committee of the Jewish Community in Hebron, tells me. “The Arabs can go anywhere. There is almost nothing they don’t have here and almost nothing they can’t do here, including launch terrorist attacks.”

Wilder is dripping with details and resentments. A New Jersey native, he can rattle off all the times Jews were hurt and killed in Hebron through the centuries, all the times they were saved, and why every stone, every tumbled piece of earth, is sacred. He clearly channels the firebrand rabbi Moshe Levinger, who went to Hebron without government permission in 1968 to hold a Passover Seder and refused to leave.

Wilder’s shirt is stained, his beard unkempt, his tzitzit flapping against his baggy trousers, a handgun in the back pocket. If Ruchie Avital is the face of the suburban settler, and A.Y. Katsof the hilltop rebel, Wilder is the unremitting agitator, whose passion I’d find almost admirable if it wasn’t so utterly unreasonable.

Since I have never been to Hebron, I am eager to see the biblical spots that serve as a magnet for some Jews, bolstering their claim that Israel should never forsake the place where it all began. Wilder takes me to the archaeological sites that predate the Temple in Jerusalem. A wall built 4,500 years ago, in the days of Noah. Another wall, built eight centuries later, in the time of Abraham and Sarah. Silos, where grain was stored in King David’s era before he relocated to Jerusalem.

I am surprised by how little this moves me. Perhaps that’s because the ruins sit, uncared for, behind a rusty fence, forlorn and, frankly, unremarkable. A red plastic bag has landed on top of the stone path that Abraham supposedly walked. A little boy scampers across the ruins. A few sagging signs provide little illumination.

This is it?

We go to Ma’arat HaMachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, regarded as the second-holiest site in Judaism, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca and Jacob are buried. Since a mosque was built on top of the caves 700 years ago, Jewish access is restricted, but we can still go through the wide, empty plaza, past the guards and into what looks to me like an ultra-Orthodox synagogue.

A few men dressed in heavy Haredi black clothes are studying and praying. The few women I see are off in a dark corner, clutching prayer books. It is musty, almost suffocating. Honestly, I can’t wait to leave.


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