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What Kind of Israel Do Settlers Want?

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.

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.

Ofra, however, is flourishing. Seven hundred families, by the latest count.

“I feel deeply privileged to be living here, at this time,” Avital says.

I am having trouble imagining that Ruchie Avital and her Jewish neighbors would ever leave Ofra.

Nor can I envision her counterparts leaving Efrat, or Ariel, or Shiloh — Jewish communities established on land that many believe should be part of an independent Palestinian state.

These are not the settlements that hug the Green Line, and could reasonably be expected to remain part of Israel should there ever come a time when negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians resume. These are not the settlers who moved across the Green Line for affordable housing and a suburban lifestyle, who could reasonably be expected to move back the other way with enough compensation and other incentives.

Of the estimated 450,000 Jews who live in the West Bank — one-third secular, one-third ultra-Orthodox, one-third Religious Zionists — only the Religious Zionists are thought to be the most wedded to the place, to the land, and the most reluctant ever to leave.

They are the vanguard and the obstacle. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued support of their presence, and expansion of their communities is the reason American officials have given for the recent breakdown of negotiations with Palestinians. A plurality of American Jews say that continued settlement building hurts the security of Israel. More and more Israelis seem to agree; a recent poll showed a continued decline in the public’s support for settlements.

No matter. Enabled by a vast network of government services, these settlers are entrenched in their own sovereignty and are determined to ignore the sentiments and claims of others — be they Palestinians, international diplomats or, at times, their own leaders and countrymen. They are harder to write off than the zealots on the hilltops or in Hebron, who are flamboyantly outside the mainstream, actively embracing a life of confrontation and limit-testing.

What disturbs me most about my recent visit with Ruchie Avital and like-minded settlers is the sheer normalcy they project: an assertion of a status quo that clearly works for them, but is utterly detached from the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and one that, with each passing year, makes the task of creating a viable state of Palestine that much more difficult.

These settlers are not the only reason for my pessimism about peace — not when Hamas is sending rockets to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and beyond, confirming its refusal to live with and recognize Israel and to abandon terror. But I want to understand what these Israelis think of the future character of their nation.

What I learn is that, with the recent breakdown of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the tragic surge in violence, these settlers believe that the two-state solution is even more discredited and impossible. They think they are winning. They have been at this for a long time — really, ever since Israel’s surprisingly dramatic victory in June 1967 gave leaders of the Jewish state much more land than they knew what to do with.

Some months later, in January 1968, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol met with President Lyndon Johnson at his Texas ranch to discuss an arms sale and the broader questions raised by Israel’s occupation. According to Gershom Gorenberg’s superb 2006 book, “The Accidental Empire,” Johnson asked Eshkol, “What kind of Israel do you want?”

And Eshkol replied, “My government has decided not to decide.”

So others decided it instead. They are still at it today.

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.

From one of the higher points in the city, we can see a road down below where the paving suddenly stops and turns to dirt as it climbs toward a Palestinian village. Revivi says the government ran out of funds needed to finish the road improvements.

“And there,” he adds, “is where the security fence was supposed to be built. But we united to stop it.”

There are two different versions as to why. Revivi says Efrat didn’t want to be cut off from its Palestinian neighbors. But Hagit Ofran, settlement watch director for Peace Now, says that Efrat doesn’t want the security fence extended, because it plans to develop another 2,500 units of housing next door in Givat Eitam, also known as Jabel Abu Zeid. The area was previously considered part of Bethlehem, and if the construction is allowed, Ofran says it will choke off and isolate that important Palestinian city.

Revivi doesn’t mention this to me.

A freeze on further expansion of settlements has long been a central premise of any diplomatic effort to find a political solution to this conflict, but it’s something that the settlers themselves seem to ignore. There have been times when permission to build more housing units has been delayed, or withheld, but somehow the expansion has never completely stopped, even when the Israeli government says it has.

It’s convenient now to blame Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, but settlement expansion proceeded apace under Labor governments as well. (Peres, now the champion of peace, was a major proponent for years.)

The legal consequences were known from the start: Three months after the 1967 war ended, Eshkol was handed an opinion from his own legal counsel. It stated: “My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” But then, as now, such niceties were ignored.

“Settlement represented the real decision,” Gorenberg writes.

With the breakdown of this latest round of negotiations, the bulldozers are resuming their work. I see apartment buildings rising in Efrat and in disputed parts of Jerusalem. On the wall of a classroom at Ariel University in the northern West Bank is a building plan for more dorms; a new library and technology area are being planned. Just a few days before my visit, Sheldon Adelson announced a $25 million gift to the university for an ambitious health and sciences center, his first to an institution across the Green Line.

In an interview, the university’s chancellor, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, is explicit about Ariel’s mission: to widen the higher education system in Israel and “to strengthen the Jewish hold on Samaria.”

But you don’t have to drive through disputed territory to observe how the Israeli government is systematically endangering the creation of a viable Palestinian state; just look at the touring map of Israel distributed by the Ministry of Tourism. Greater Israel is presented as one continuous space. The Green Line is just about impossible to decipher.

Contact Jane Eisner at [email protected] or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner


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