JERUSALEM — Following a recent wave of Palestinian attacks against Jewish hitchhikers in the West Bank, leaders of the settler movement have started yielding to army pressure and issuing warnings against the dangers of hitchhiking.
Settler leaders have long resisted pleas from the military to discourage hitchhiking, citing limited bus service to their isolated outposts and insisting that movement of Palestinians, as opposed to settlers, should be restricted. Settlers, especially youth, depend heavily on hitchhiking through the West Bank to reach jobs, schools and other destinations.
In recent weeks, however, the military has increased its pressure in the wake of several violent incidents. These include last week’s abduction and killing of Eliyahu Asheri, an 18-year-old yeshiva student from the West Bank settlement of Itamar, as well as a failed attempt in mid-June to kidnap two 15-year-old girls from a hitchhiking station at a junction near the Palestinian city of Nablus.
The army issued a notice to settlers in late June warning that hitchhiking stations are the “most threatened and accessible places for carrying out terrorist attacks.”
Responding to army pressure, several strong warnings have been issued recently by rabbis identified with the settler movement. Tzohar, an organization of rabbis from the religious Zionist movement that has a wide following among West Bank settlers, publicized a rabbinic ruling on its Web site, forbidding most hitchhiking. The ruling stated that a hitchhiker climbing into a car driven by someone whom he doesn’t know is a “sinner.”
In a separate ruling, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, ventured further by stating that he views hitchhiking altogether as a “severe violation” that endangers lives.
The main settler organization, the Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, has followed only slowly and reluctantly. The council, known by the Hebrew acronym Yesha, last week distributed a directive to settlers. The directive says that it is cooperating with the army in efforts to expand public transportation and boost security for West Bank hitchhikers.
But despite the army’s warnings, the settlement council refused to instruct settlers to stop the habit. Instead, the council said that hitchhiking was a direct result of insufficient public transportation, and it urged the army to increase its forces in the area and to prevent Palestinian vehicles from driving on roads also used by Israelis.
The director general of the Yesha Council, Avner Shimoni, told the Forward in an interview that a ban on hitchhiking was not being considered by the council. “We won’t do it, just like in Tel Aviv there aren’t instructions not to take buses following bus bombings,” said Shimoni, who headed the Gaza Coast Regional Council before Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal strip last summer.
The settlement council’s resistance to stopping hitchhiking, despite the dangers involved, may be rooted in practical as well as ideological reasons.
“On the practical side, whoever prohibits hitchhiking either has a private Volvo or simply doesn’t understand the reality of life in Judea and Samaria,” said Shlomo Oiknine, the settlement council’s head of security, using a biblical term that refers to the West Bank.
According to Oiknine, tens of thousands of people living in smaller settlements that are close to Palestinian villages opt to hitch rides because of the infrequency of buses in their areas. Citing an example, Oiknine said that public buses enter the settlement of Kochav Hashachar — which, he adds, has one of Israel’s highest birthrates — only three times a day. That makes travel difficult for the village’s 300 families — each “with at least 10 children.”
Practical reasons aside, settler ideology also may play a role in the council’s actions. Some observers say that settler leaders — in their battle against the government’s plan to withdraw from territory in the West Bank — are resistant to any action that would imply acknowledgment that they live in a dangerous place.
They also don’t want to further antagonize the settlers who are their constituents, according to some analysts. That’s because some settlers see the Yesha Council as responsible for the failed battle against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza last summer, as well as for the unsuccessful fight against the government’s plan to construct a separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel.
“The government is seen as threatening the continuation of Jewish life in Judea and Samaria,” said Mordechai Nisan, a Middle East specialist at The Hebrew University who says he supports the settler movement. “That’s why instructing people not to hitchhike is another nail in the coffin of Judea and Samaria.”
Theology also may explain the reluctance to curb settlers’ movement in the West Bank. Such limits, Nisan says, may conflict with the teachings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, seen as the spiritual mentor of Israeli ultranationalists. Kook, who died in 1982, was a leader of the Gush Emunim settler movement, whose followers believed that the Jewish people and the State of Israel should ensure Jewish sovereignty over all parts of the land of Israel as it was defined in the Bible.
“Rabbi Kook believed Jews should go into the territories with confidence, and not hide or sneak in,” Nisan said.
Whatever the reasoning behind the Yesha Council’s mild directive, the council’s action goes too far for some settler leaders. Diehard settlers such as Daniela Weiss, head of the local council of the Kedumim settlement and one of the first Jews to move to the West Bank, said she will encourage people to continue hitchhiking and won’t distribute Yesha’s recommendations in Kedumim.
“We shouldn’t be the ones to be limited. The Arabs’ movements should be limited,” Weiss said in an interview with the Forward. “Such limits damage the spirit of the nation of Israel, and the spirit of knowing this is our country and that we should be able to travel freely everywhere.”
Despite the recent attention drawn to its risks, hitchhiking remains the most popular transportation choice for youths traveling to and from the West Bank.
Feigy Daniel, an 18-year-old waiting at a hitchhiking post in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood last Friday, told a reporter from NRG, the Web site of the Ma’ariv newspaper, that she plans to hitch rides to get to the Tapuach Junction in the West Bank.
“We’re afraid, but we’re being careful,” she was quoted as saying. “I am not going to stop my life because of terrorists.”