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In the Land Of the Lonely

8 minute read
Tim Mcgirk/Migron

Deep inside Palestinian territory, the Jewish community of Migron sits, precariously, on the crown of a skull-white hill. On a winter day, the wind is so fierce it rocks the trailer homes, knocks over the kids’ plastic tricycles in the muddy driveways and threatens to rip out the young fruit saplings planted by the 90 young settlers who call Migron home. A guard dog the size of a lion prowls the hilltop to scare off Arab prowlers–or terrorists. Migron is a hard and unforgiving place, especially these days.

Itai Harel, 32, founded the Migron settlement in 2002, on his honeymoon. Harel and his bride were fulfilling a dream: Jews repossessing the biblical land of Judea and Samaria, nearly 2,000 years after they were exiled. It matters little to Harel and the other Israelis who have settled in Migron that they are living on land that much of the world believes belongs to the Palestinians, in homes that many of their own countrymen would just as soon see abandoned. In fact, the residents of Migron seem to pride themselves on being among the biggest loners in the Middle East. “We’re supposed to be a Jewish, democratic state,” says Harel, a broad-shouldered ex-paratrooper still in the army reserves. “But if you ask me, it’s more important that this be a Jewish state than a democratic one, and for us, Judaism is the land of biblical Israel. It’s more here than in Tel Aviv.”

Settlers were once considered the golden pioneers of Zionism, the force behind the creation of Israel and, later, the occupation of territory seized after the 1967 war. But the future of the settlement movement, and the settlers themselves, has never seemed more uncertain. More than 270,000 Israelis live beyond the Green Line, as the old border is called, most in walled-in suburbs like Ma’aleh Adumim outside Jerusalem, which could be an estate of southern California condominiums if it weren’t for the 300-year-old olive trees implanted in the traffic circles. The vast majority of Israelis living in the West Bank today do so less out of any ideological fervor than because the housing is cheap. But some 70,000 settlers are religious nationalists like Harel, who consider Palestinian land to be their Jewish birthright. They tend to live in remote outposts, surrounded by hostile Palestinians and occasionally harassed by Israeli authorities under pressure from the international community to evacuate the settlements. In 2005, Israel did just that, withdrawing 9,053 settlers from the Gaza Strip, the first time in more than two decades that Israel had voluntarily given back occupied territory.

The evacuation of Gaza was supposed to be the first step in Israel’s “disengagement” from the Palestinians, followed by withdrawal from settlements in the more historically and strategically important West Bank. Those plans were shelved last year by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as conflicts with militants from Hizballah and Hamas soured many Israeli officials on the idea of giving up any more ground. But Olmert is weighing a pullout again. The Bush Administration has signaled a new determination to forge a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And the success of those negotiations will hinge in part on whether Olmert’s government can sustain support for dismantling the West Bank settlements, more than 40% of which have been built illegally on private Palestinian land, according to Peace Now, an Israeli pacifist group.

It won’t be easy. Polls show that a thin majority of Israelis want to get rid of settlements. But Olmert’s dismal approval ratings have forced him into a marriage of convenience with the pro-settlement right wing. A large-scale campaign to evacuate Jewish settlers could produce more clashes like the one that erupted last January in an outpost called Amona, when an army effort to dislodge a few families left 200 soldiers and settlers injured. Another outbreak of violence could bring down Olmert’s centrist government, which would probably hand power to hawkish parties who are in no mood to make peace with the Palestinians. As Gershom Gorenberg, an expert on the history of Israel’s settlements, says, “Olmert’s biggest fear is Jews fighting Jews, and that gives the settlers a stranglehold over the government.”

The fate of the peace process, in other words, may be decided by what happens in places like Migron. As Israeli society has grown more secular and less attached to the vision of a greater Israel, ideological splits have emerged among the settlers. The most radical “hilltop youths” are ready to mobilize and resist the government’s attempts to remove them. Many like Harel are second-generation settlers, the sons and daughters of older Zionists. They have grown up steeped in holy books and prophecy and see themselves as the first line of defense against the Arabs. They consider themselves divorced from the state and view the army and politicians, once their loudest cheerleaders, with distrust and suspicion. It has become a showdown of “Jews vs. Israelis,” as Gorenberg puts it, and these extremists believe themselves to be the righteous Jews.

The family of Harel, the founder of Migron, embodies that divide. Harel’s father Israel was among the early settlers who crossed into Jordanian territory after the 1967 war. He says that settlers like him were driven by a collective Zionism akin to socialism. “Our motivation wasn’t religious,” says the elder Harel. But younger settlers, like his son, seek more “divine reasons” for spreading into the Palestinian lands. “This transition into religious nationalism is unfortunate. It makes us into a sect,” the elder Harel says. “And it doesn’t represent what the majority of Israelis think.”

Some radical settlers are hurting their own cause. Israeli television showed footage last week of a young settler, and her child, taunting a Palestinian girl in Hebron and cursing her as a “whore.” Similar ugly scenes of Jewish settlers hacking down ancient Palestinian olive groves or beating up Arab schoolkids are just part of the reason why many Israelis have turned against them. Another is money: guarding and maintaining the settlements costs plenty. A study by the newspaper Ha’aretz reckons that since 1967, the bills run upwards of $10 billion, excluding military costs in the West Bank. According to Yaacov Shamir, a communications professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, recent polls show that 52% of Israelis are prepared to withdraw from settlements as part of a future peace deal with Palestinians.

But that number may slip if the instability in the Palestinian territories–fueled by disputes between the Hamas government and President Mahmoud Abbas–gets worse. Israelis thought that leaving Gaza would give them a breather from terrorists; instead it has accelerated a downpour of rockets into Israel from Palestinian militants in Gaza. For the most part, the Palestinians in the West Bank live like ghosts on the periphery of the Jewish settlements. The nearby Arab villages are usually walled off, and settler-only highways, guarded by army checkpoints and concrete walls, have turned Palestinian communities into islands. But in the gray zone of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, some Palestinians are grudgingly accepting of the settlements, because the settlers hire Palestinian workers. Modi’in Ilit, an ultra-Orthodox community of 35,000 along the Green Line, is growing so fast that 1,000 Palestinian construction workers are allowed in from nearby villages to build 10-story high-rise apartments. “Every week 40 babies are born here,” says Mayor Yaakov Guterman, who predicts Modi’in Ilit will swell to 200,000 inhabitants in the next two decades, all on land purchased controversially inside the Palestinian territories. And nobody is stopping them.

Taking the painful step of leaving the West Bank will require Israelis to accept what the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, recognized in 1949: that the longer Jews hold onto land seized from the Arabs, the more likely they are to become a minority in their own homeland. (There are currently 5.7 million Jews living in Israel and the occupied territories, in contrast to 5.4 million Palestinians.) The problem is less one of ideology than of political will. Too many Israeli politicians, including Olmert, owe their rise to the support of the settler communities, which are among the most active and well-organized forces in Israeli politics. Back at Migron, Itai Harel turns up the collar of his blue plaid jacket against the wind and points out the asphalt road, the electricity lines leading up the hill, the water tank–all built by the Israeli government. Harel says five Cabinet ministers have visited his hilltop and all pledged support. “They’re helping us through the back door, with a wink,” he says.

Harel envisions that someday 500 religious families will inhabit Migron. He speaks with the confidence of both a true believer and a pragmatist, one who knows that settlements like his have outlasted many previous attempts to uproot them. At his wintry outpost, Harel is not worried about Olmert pulling back the settlers. “The Israeli public will go wherever a strong leader takes them, but for now, we have no strong leaders,” he says. That’s good news for Harel–but hardly a solid foundation on which to build peace in the Middle East.

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