"When the media talk about evacuating settlements, they are thinking of caravans. Look at what we've built. You want to remove this?"
The couch is low and yawning; one of those deep couches from which it’s difficult to extricate oneself. But why would I? It’s very comfortable. It sits on a tiled floor amidst the innocent clutter of furniture in a charming, small living room. Brimming bookshelves hide the whitewashed walls and boast mainly religious texts, but a few English biographies and some children’s books add some colour. I’m sipping Earl Grey tea and eyeing the kosher-for-Passover biscuits.
I could easily be in a leafy North London suburb but for the fine weather outside. As it happens, I’m on the West Bank, so-called for its situation to the west of the River Jordan. To most Israelis, however, the territory goes by its biblical names, Yehudah and Shomron (Judea and Samaria), or by the compound Yesha.
My hosts, Michael, a twenty-something Canadian rabbinical student, and Rebecca, from the UK, were recently married. I notice their ketubah (religious marriage contract) on the wall.
Michael moved here from Canada to study at the world-renowned yeshiva (religious academy) here in Alon Shevut. The academy, a large, white, angular building nestled in a cosy campus overlooking the valley, attracts many students from the Anglophone world. Its teachers are acknowledged authorities on biblical commentary, traditional law and Jewish philosophy, and many of the Israeli students split their time between learning and military service. Rebecca, meanwhile, made aliyah (“ascended”) to Israel a few years ago, and moved to Alon Shevut for the innocuous reason of marriage. These are not the ideologues from the television.
Alon Shevut is part of Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc). It’s a short bus ride from Jerusalem over the Green Line, the border from before the Six-Day War, fought 44 years ago. Israel astonished the world by defeating the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which had assembled against it, and more than tripled the size of the country in under a week. The territories captured were the Sinai (since returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace accord), the Gaza Strip (from which Israel unilaterally disengaged in 2005), the Golan Heights (annexed by Israel), East Jerusalem (also annexed) and the West Bank. Within a few years, several communities had been established in the Etzion area, including Alon Shevut.
“Re-established,” Rebecca corrects me, as there was a Jewish presence in this area prior to the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948, but those Jews were forced out by Arab riots in 1929 and again in the 1930s. When Jordan occupied the West Bank following the Israeli War of Independence, Jews could not settle here, but following the Six-Day War, they returned, led by one of the children of those earlier evacuees. Since then, Alon Shevut has thrived, boasting a population of some 650 families — mainly modern Orthodox and religious Zionist — and a winery, in addition to the academy.
The total population of the Etzion communities stands at well over 50,000-mere trivia in another context, but what such statistics measure are of the essence here in the West Bank. The much-reported dance of outpost construction and forced removal misses the real development: demography.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Modi’in Ilit, a 20-minute car ride from Tel Aviv. Although the Green Line divides secular Modi’in and its suburb, Modi’in Ilit, there is no disruption to the journey nor any indication that any border has been crossed. There is no checkpoint or military presence. I wasn’t even aware we had crossed into Samaria until my guide, Ephraim, pointed it out.
Modi’in Ilit is the largest single Israeli community in the West Bank. “Settlement” is a misnomer: with some 55,000 Israelis here, the government has granted Modi’in Ilit the status of city. Unlike in Alon Shevut, the residents here are predominantly ultra-orthodox, or hareidi: their traditional black garb — reminiscent of eastern Europe and familiar to any visitor of the Jewish communities of London or Manchester — is an immediate giveaway. The ultra-Orthodox presence in Yesha is a relatively new phenomenon, and they now constitute a third of the Jewish population here.
We drive around. The area is fairly large, but, as in Tel Aviv, the preference here has been to build upwards; adorning the hills are unassuming apartment blocks of Jerusalem stone (imitation, probably). Even ignoring the residents, it is obvious that this is a hareidi town: the city is stark and utilitarian, the austerity disturbed only by coloured balcony railings and the occasional playpen. Batei midrash (study halls) and shtiebels (small synagogues) line the main road. There is even a branch of the famous Mir Yeshiva here. Some children ride up the pavement on bicycles, their tzitzit (religious tassels) flailing. Others are in a nearby playground.
“Children!” That’s why Modi’in Ilit was built, Ephraim explains. Hareidim are known for their large families: since 1990, this burgeoning city has provided inexpensive housing for these ultra-Orthodox families hailing from brimful communities elsewhere in Israel. The population of Modi’in Ilit is expected to double within the next decade. This is the “natural growth” we hear so much about: these communities can grow rapidly thanks not to immigration, but to reproduction.
And grow they have. Modi’in Ilit is not the only significant Israeli urban centre on the West Bank: Ma’aleh Adumim and Beitar Ilit each house 35,000-45,000 people. “When the media talk about evacuating settlements, they are thinking of caravans. Look at what we’ve built!” Ephraim is incredulous. “You want to remove this?”
He suggests we visit Nili, a tiny settlement nearby, before we leave. We have to pass the security barrier built during Ariel Sharon’s premiership which did more to reduce suicide bombings in Israel than probably any other factor. Interestingly, the barrier was constructed so that Modi’in Ilit lies on the Israeli side, even though it is beyond the Green Line. More interestingly, the point at which we pass through the barrier is framed by a structure which I’m told will become a passport terminal. The Palestinian Authority is planning to declare statehood unilaterally in September at the meeting of the UN General Assembly, and Ephraim suspects that a decision between the Israeli, Palestinian Arab and American leaders has already been reached, but that we have not yet been informed. On the face of it, Israeli policy is opposed to this unilateral declaration, insisting that progress can only be made at the negotiating table. And yet, seeing these terminals here does indeed raise questions, not least because they have allegedly been built with Israeli money.
“Bruchim Ha-ba’im Le’Nili” (“Welcome to Nili”), the sign reads. Situated atop a hill, its few houses crowned with red roofs, a couple of soldiers napping in a jeep, and the Palestinian Arab city of Ramallah in the distance, this place better conforms to my impressions of what a settlement is. But the electric gate is manned by a secular resident, not the skullcap-wearing, Uzi-carrying religious man I expected.
Ephraim explains that the residents have a rota for these sorts of community jobs, and that this is a small commuter village: cheap living, a green and well-maintained environment, a beautiful vista of Samarian hills, wonderful air, and a short journey to the commercial areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is remarkably small, though: there are only a few sizeable houses of varying colours and a school, which perhaps serves some of the neighbouring communities too, like Naaleh, which sits atop the next hill. A sign points to a synagogue. Ephraim jokes that the residents enjoy the exclusivity; there is indeed something of a Los Angeles private estate about it. Nili has a paradisiacal quality; Ephraim picks a plant to use in a salad for dinner.
On our way to Tel Aviv, we return through the passport terminal. Unlike the uninterrupted journey inwards, we must slow down on our way out, though, like most of the vehicles in front of us, we are waved through since our car has an Israeli licence plate.
We stop to do some shopping at a Rami Levi hypermarket on the way. Recently, the country mourned the murders of Udi and Ruth Fogel, along with three of their children, aged 11, four and three months, at the hands of Palestinian Arabs, while they were sleeping at home in the settlement of Ithamar. An independent poll found that almost half of surveyed Palestinian Arabs supported the murders. Three other children survived, and Rami Levi, I’m told, has pledged to provide them with groceries until they each reach the age of 18.
Apparent lulls in violence here are constantly punctured by tragic atrocities. And there is always a story. A recent bombing in Jerusalem killed a Scottish Christian missionary who was studying Hebrew for six months in order to return to Togo and translate the Old Testament into the local language. One of the innumerable rockets Hamas fired from Gaza hit a school bus, and though only one teenager was on board at the time, he died of his wounds.
Ilan is a mapmaker. He has travelled the country extensively. He pulls out a map and points to a dot. “Modi’in Ilit,” he says. This is the world’s perspective: dots on a map. It doesn’t show the apartment blocks, the schools, the malls, the playgrounds. Ilan sips his black coffee. We’re sitting in one of his native Tel Aviv’s many chic cafés. Water spurts out of the nearby fountain, gleeful children in the playpen exploit an illusory freedom from parents chatting away noisily at other tables, every so often moving their seats to stay out of the shade. This city is restless. It would eat the serene Nili whole. Tel Aviv is also the bastion of Israel’s secular Left, but even here one finds pockets of support for the settlement enterprise.
“Both Jews and Arabs have a lot of history and religious and emotional attachment to this land,” Ilan declares. “Ultimately, Tel Aviv is peripheral. Yehudah and Shomron are the biblical heartlands.” It is a rare admission from a resident of this city, which fancies itself the centre of the Israeli universe.
Highway 60, Derech Avot (“the route of the fathers”) runs along the spine of the West Bank and traces the path trodden by the biblical patriarchs. Tradition teaches that Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, are all buried in Hebron, Rachel in Bethlehem, and Joseph in Shechem (Nablus). Other sites like Shilo, Dotan (Jenin) and Beit El keep the biblical past alive, and Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, is the pearl in the crown. The Hebrew word for settler, mitnachel, comes from the word, nachalah, heritage, or inheritance. The settlers are realising the inheritance of the nation by settling in the biblical heartland.
This country is exceptionally grateful for its inheritance. This café is located on Ibn Gvirol Street, named after the medieval Jewish poet. All these roads are named after biblical kings, Talmudic rabbis, medieval philosophers, Zionist thinkers, Jewish philanthropists, Israeli pioneers, and the fauna and flora of the land. “The Arabs had the land for a long time, and they did nothing with it,” Ilan observes. “Now they see what can be done with it, and they want it.”
He concedes that he would support withdrawing from the territories for the sake of true peace, but he struggles to imagine such a scenario. This scepticism seems well-founded: previous withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza did not bring peace to those borders. It also seems logical: if the Palestinian Arabs are incapable of tolerating Jewish communities in their state, is that really “peace”?
A short bus ride downtown takes me to a well-publicised rally on the upmarket Rothschild Boulevard, outside Independence Hall. Here, 63 years ago, David ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence in a discreet ceremony, as the British Mandate came to a close and the neighbouring Arab armies were massing. Israelis celebrate Independence Day according to the Jewish calendar, though Palestinian (and many Israeli) Arabs commemorate the Gregorian anniversary as the Nakba (“catastrophe”).
These protesters, however, are demanding a new independence: from the kibush (“occupation”). They are calling for a return to the armistice borders of 1949 — “the borders we always dreamed about” — a speaker’s reference to the longstanding Zionist dream to return to the land of Israel, apparently forgetting the War of Independence that cost the nascent state 1 per cent of its tiny population and expanded Israel’s borders by 50 per cent more than those stipulated by the UN’s Partition Plan, which the Jews had accepted but the Arabs rejected.
In anticipation of the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of statehood in September, they chant: “Two states for two peoples.” A sign reads, “Two Jerusalems. One Peace.” A speaker describes the current Netanyahu government as “evil”. The demonstration is small — barely a hundred people — but punches above its weight because of the attendees: several celebrities and 17 recipients of the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious award. A counter-protest is even smaller, but both are composed of secular people. This is Tel Aviv, after all.
One of the counter-protesters has a megaphone. “You want to make peace with terrorists?” he exclaims. A speaker at the main rally demands from the police that they stop the counter-protesters from disturbing them, “like you didn’t stop Yigal Amir,” a reference to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. The rhetoric is vitriolic. On reflection, though, it is probably no worse than a trade union rally in Britain or an American Tea Party protest.
I speak to a bearded, bespectacled protester in a turquoise polo shirt. His white cap reads: “We won’t shut up.” That much is clear from his response to my question regarding what he expects to happen to the settlers: “They will return. Those who want to remain should be allowed to do so,” as citizens of the Palestinian Arab state. He explains that, in his view, some 70 per cent of them are there because of government incentives, including cheap housing. Only 30 per cent are true “believers”. Indeed, many of the others are foreigners duped into moving there, but without the perks they will all leave. This, he insists, was always known by Israeli politicians, most of whom do not live there because they know it cannot last, instead shifting the price to the settlers themselves, and to the rest of the Israeli people, including the very poor, who do not appreciate the reality.
There are, he explains, two options: two states or one binational state with rights for everyone and consequently a Jewish minority. (Demographically, that would probably not be the case, as it happens, unless the Palestinian Arab “right of return” is granted, in which case it will be a closer call.) Towards the end of his monologue he becomes more incensed, referring to the settlers as “morons” and dismissing the counter-protesters as deluded into thinking this “apartheid” can continue. “They just want a reason to wave flags.”
The West, he concludes, only supports Israel thanks to guilt for the Holocaust, but that won’t last. Obama, he notes, was alone in vetoing the recent condemnatory resolution on settlements at the UN, but soon the pressure will be too much for him, and in any case he too supports the Palestinian Arab cause at heart. He sums up his case with a Hebrew idiom, lamenting that “Israelis have urine in the head”.
As I leave, I observe a man carrying a giant flag featuring the portrait of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by a Hamas cell which crossed the border of Gaza into Israel. He is in his fifth year of captivity now and still deprived of Red Cross visits. The flag is the bearer’s passport into both protests. On Gilad, the country agrees. But on little else. The main rally is dispersing, but the remnant is chanting, “Israel, Palestine, two states for two peoples.” (It rhymes in the Hebrew.) The counter-protesters are satisfied with bogdim (traitors).
Today is Isru Chag, the day after Passover. A couple of days ago, the nephew of a longtime government minister from the Likud Party was shot and killed in Nablus by a Palestinian Arab policeman who is now under investigation, as he and others were visiting the tomb of Joseph, a right retained in the Oslo Agreement. The tomb had recently been restored following a series of Arab arson attacks.
Meanwhile, that day British news media reported that one civilian had been killed in Syria. The dissonance between what the world reports and the reality in the Middle East is astonishing; Israeli news outlets reported that more than 100 Syrian civilians had been killed that day. A few days later, the Western media catches up.
Today I am meeting Naftali Bennett, the director-general of the Yesha Council, the representative body of the settlers. Naftali, a warmly hospitable man, is an accomplished fellow. He served in the Sayeret Matkal, one of the Israeli Defence Forces’ most elite units, of raid-on-Entebbe fame. He is still a major in the reserves. Following his mandatory service, he launched a high-tech start-up: some seven in ten North American online bank transactions use his company’s anti-fraud technology (such businesses are arguably the backbone of the Israeli economy). He sold it for well over $100 million, and stayed on for a little longer. The day after his departure, the second Lebanon war broke out and he returned to uniform. Thereafter, he served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and got him elected to the Likud Party leadership.
He lives not in the West Bank but in Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv. Why then is he on the Yesha Council? “Because Yesha is a strategic necessity for the safety of my family and for all of Israel.”
This was brought home to me at Barkan, where I met Natalie. Natalie showed us one of this Samarian community’s most beautiful and instructive prospects. From here, we can see Ra’anana very easily, as well as the nearby towns Kfar Saba and Hadera and the coastal cities of Netanya, Herzliya and Tel Aviv. Naftali insists that from a military point of view, even with Israel’s sophisticated anti-rocket technology, the Green Line is indefensible, not least because the most populous Israeli areas, as well as the main international airport, could be targeted by mortars. Abba Eban, the legendary English-born, Cambridge-educated Israeli statesman, described these as Auschwitz borders. Naftali echoes this sentiment: “To withdraw to the Green Line is national suicide.”
Natalie asks how Israel can have peace with the Arabs when they cannot even have peace amongst themselves. Israelis are very cautious in their assessment of the Arab Spring. The newspapers today are reporting that recent polling indicates that a majority of Egyptians want to cancel the peace treaty with Israel. Natalie says her mother prophesied that Israel would have to go into the Sinai for a third time. And if peace with an established country like Egypt, where a new regime might reverse policy entirely, is so precarious, how can Israel make peace with a quasi-state like the Palestinian Authority (PA)?
But Naftali insists that the West Bank is not only about security: it is ours, he declares. He believes that the Arabs know that places like Jerusalem and Shilo are the Jewish soul, and to take them means victory.
Although she has six children, Natalie wears trousers and her hair is uncovered. She is secular, she explains: she drives and barbecues on the Sabbath. Indeed, a third of the Israeli population of Yesha is secular, and this demographic tends to live near the Green Line and in the Jordan valley; the religious Zionist communities are found deeper in the territory. Natalie was originally from Tel Aviv, but moved to Barkan, founded by Russian immigrants in 1981, in the mid-1990s.
Barkan has some 340 families, and a new neighbourhood is being built to accommodate their grown-up children who want to live here, which will raise the population to some 400 families. The community is close-knit, and Natalie describes all the children’s activities available, the volunteering projects, the educational provision, and the centre for the elderly.
She laments how misunderstood the Israeli residents of Yesha are. The Israeli media and elites never visit here, and consequently remain utterly ignorant. She illustrates this with a personal story.
Natalie’s old neighbour in Tel Aviv is a journalist, and when she first moved here, within a couple of days her friend called her for help gaining access to a well-known associate of Yigal Amir. This was immediately after the Rabin assassination. Natalie was incredulous: “I barely knew my way around town. And she wanted me to put her in touch with some woman I didn’t know, who, for all I knew, might live anywhere in the West Bank! Yet my friend insisted, stubbornly remaining under the assumption that everyone on the West Bank knows everyone else, that we’re all the same.”
As we leave Barkan, we pass through the industrial zone, one of the main such zones in this region. There is high-tech here, a hummus plant, a bagel company (from which Unilever is seeking to divest), and many enterprises. The Barkan winery used to be here, but moved to the other side of the Green Line because of boycott fears. International boycotts also hurt the 25,000 Palestinian Arab employees of settler industries, and their families. They work under Israeli (and not Palestinian Arab) labour laws, which include a minimum wage some three times higher than that prevailing under the PA, greater union protection, and more rigorous labour rights. The Palestinian Arab prime minister, Salim Fayad, called earlier this year for a double boycott of such industries: the commerce boycott went ahead, though with a limited effect, since the Palestinian Arab market is of limited importance; the employment boycott, however, whereby Palestinian Arab workers were called upon not to go to work, was utterly ineffectual.
We drive along Route Five. Naftali assures me that, contrary to the claims of that protester in Tel Aviv, the only apartheid on the West Bank is on the part of the Arabs. With the Oslo Agreement, the West Bank was divided into three portions: Area A, under full Palestinian Authority control, Area B, under Israeli security control but PA civil authority, and Area C, under full Israeli control. Since then, Area B has largely been absorbed into the Area A category. Thanks to Oslo, Area A became off-limits for Jews, says Naftali, but the upshot was that new roads were built around Arab settlements, so that Israeli drivers no longer had to travel through them to get to and from home. It is evident from the licence plates that these new roads are shared by Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. If there is any apartheid, Naftali declares, it is surely the double standard that the Arabs are free to access the Israeli roads but not vice versa.
And what of the Palestinians’ rights? They have, Naftali says, full citizenship and voting rights under the PA, which is a de facto state. The Israeli residents of the West Bank vote in Israeli elections, and the Palestinian Arabs vote in PA elections. The only difference between what they have now and what they want, he says, is an army and the Palestinian Arab right of return, neither of which Israel can tolerate. He interrupts himself to note that we are passing the tomb of Joshua. Shortly thereafter, we arrive at Ariel.
Ariel is among the most contentious of the Yesha towns, as it is both in the geographic middle of the West Bank and of the land of Israel, and consequently very difficult to carve out of a future Palestinian Arab state, and it has a population of some 17,600. Picturesque and beautifully maintained, Ariel is an exceptionally warm and inviting place. It takes a pleasant while to drive through its streets, and we stop to observe a religious family in a playground.
Naftali tells me they are evacuees from Gush Katif (the former bloc of Israeli settlements in Gaza). In 2005, the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, unilaterally disengaged from Gaza, but the exercise traumatised the nation.
Soldiers toyed with refusing orders, demonstrations and civil disobedience were rampant, and the televised images of Jews forcibly carried from their homes by black-uniformed border police was too much for many viewers. The settlers’ homes were bulldozed, their deceased relatives were exhumed, and, following their departure, their synagogues were torched, their horticulture ravaged, and their gardens became launching sites for rockets. The botched resettlement of the families by the government provoked further pity from the nation. Naftali points across the road to caravans in which, despite government promises six years ago of proper housing, they are still living.
And yet that disengagement from Gaza removed merely 8,600 settlers. Today almost 350,000 Jews live in the West Bank, many of them in big towns, and some 200,000 more in East Jerusalem. Evacuating so many people seems unfeasible at the best of times, let alone after such a precedent.
Geopolitics has a name for this demographic reality: facts on the ground. President George W. Bush recognised them in his 2004 letter to Sharon, but, in pressuring Netanyahu for further withdrawals, President Obama appears to be reneging on those pledges, which seems good reason not to trust his own pledges regarding the Palestinian Arab right of return. They don’t like him much here.
Having navigated what feels like countless roundabouts, we arrive at Ariel’s university. Officially called Ariel University Centre of Samaria, it is a year from the end of a five-year graduation process from college to university. Academically, the chief spokesperson explains, the institution is fit for promotion, but politically, it is more precarious, and a friendly government must be in place for the best outcome.
He begins our tour at the main building, a fine belvedere overlooking Samaria, Nablus observable in the distance by the biblical Eival Mountain. We are standing next to the office of the university’s president, who comes to greet us. He was meeting with a former finance minister who now serves as a leading executive of the institution, and who tells me about the institution’s plans. The centre serves some 12,000 students, only 15 per cent of whom come from Samaria, and including a thousand Israeli Arabs and increasing numbers of Palestinian Arabs. Many of the students are Russian, including MBA and communications graduates. The university hopes to enlarge the student body to 20,000 within a decade.
Soon I find myself in a sophisticated robotics laboratory. A professor takes me through the equipment: there are police robots, bomb disposal robots, and tunnel robots, which are deployed in the weapons-smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, as well as in sewage infrastructure. He explains his and his colleagues’ realisation that the human body is also essentially a tunnel system, and they are developing microscopic medical robots which are ingested, as well as operating robots which can be controlled remotely — even from another continent. From conversations with medical professionals back in the UK, I understand these developments are being watched with anticipation from abroad.
The professor lives in Hadera and commutes to Ariel. He has no personal qualms about working in the West Bank, and says that he is professionally unaffected, as most universities and academics abroad are keen to work with his department. The only drawback, he says, is funding, since the institution cannot apply for US or EU grants because of its location. Funding from the Israeli state is also difficult, the spokesperson adds, since such a substantial proportion of the budget goes to defence.
Looking around the laboratory and watching the students walking around campus with their satchels, as students do, and drinking at the coffee shops, Jews, Arabs and foreigners together, I find it difficult to imagine how and, indeed, why, such an institution could or should be “evacuated”. This is not a tent or a caravan or even a house or an apartment block: it is a full-blown university that happens to be situated in a settlement. The notion that an academic institution that develops life-saving medical robots, that houses Israel’s largest particle accelerator, that teaches Israelis and Arabs alongside one another, should be forced to close down, underscores the perversity of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Back in the car, Naftali and I discuss the question of legality. At the international level, the issue is well-rehearsed: the Balfour Declaration which invited Jewish settlement throughout the area and which has not been superseded, the ambiguity of UN resolutions, dispute over the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention, etc. But Naftali is more interested in the domestic situation.
When Jordan occupied the West Bank between 1949 and 1967, he relates, the government surveyed the area, noting which land was privately owned by Arabs, and designating the overwhelming majority of the territory, which was not privately owned, as state land. The Arabs tended to avoid building on hilltops, since the more elevated land is poorer. Hence, when the Israelis began building here following the Six-Day War, they built on top of the hills, not simply for strategic reasons but because that land was ownerless. And aside from isolated incidents, the settlers do not expropriate private Arab land. In any case, the Israeli government retains the power of eminent domain and also provides compensation, regardless of the identity of the owner. Moreover, only 6 per cent of the West Bank is even built up at all, so the notion of wholesale land theft seems dubious.
As far as Naftali is concerned, therefore, the popular Israeli understanding of the settlements as “illegal” is imprecise; rather, the status of many is undisputed, but the complication underlying those in dispute is not legal but bureaucratic, and consequently those particular settlements are, until they work through the system, simply “unauthorised”.
Our final stop is Eli, an “unauthorised” settlement comprising some nine neighbourhoods on various hills spread over a large area. We pass a group from the Israeli town of Mitzpe Ramon, here on a hiking trip. Like many other settlements, Eli is not fenced; electric sensors are used, since residents see no reason to fence themselves in.
Tamar, hair covered and visibly religious, shows us her rather suburban house and leaves her young boys playing in the lounge to take us to the backyard. We have travelled from West to East, and are now barely 15 kilometres from Jordan. We have travelled, I’m told, most of the journey along one of five strategically critical Jewish land corridors from the Mediterranean to Jordan.
This is the last of multiple prospects I have viewed in the West Bank, and each occasion seems to yield new insights. Despite our proximity to Jordan, we can see as far as the sea — Tamar adds that on some days they can even see ships — as well as the Hadera electrical facility, reinforcing the fundamental strategic value of these places.
Below us, we see the Derech Avot, and, most stirringly, Shilo, the capital of ancient Israel for 390 years, before the building of Jerusalem. Eli is named after the last priest who served at Shilo. Tamar describes the feeling of celebrating Passover overlooking the site of the Pascal sacrifices of old.
She recounts how, when her neighbour built the house next door, she discovered broken clay dishes which she promptly took to an incredulous archaeologist, who dated them to the era of the Judges, when Shilo was the capital. He explained that, unlike in Jerusalem, sacrifices brought to Shilo did not need to be consumed on the mountain itself, but simply within sight of the mountain. Moreover, Jewish law stipulates that any item used for a holy purpose, such as clay, which contracts holiness, cannot then be used for something profane. Hence the dishes were broken and left behind. The tale, the ground, is humbling.
There is too much history in this vista to recount, including sites from the story of the Maccabees, but particularly memorable is Tamar’s relation of the Talmud’s poetic description of the olive oil and wine of this area as of the highest quality in the world; that Jews have returned here after 2,000 years and are now winning international awards for those very same products is remarkable.
Back inside, Tamar serves us tea and cake and tells us of other recent visitors to Eli, including the American politician hopeful Mike Huckabee, the pollster Frank Luntz, and the television team of Louis Theroux. I recall a recent BBC programme of Theroux’s, “The Ultra-Zionists”, which featured some of the most uncompromising settlers who do live in tents and makeshift caravans and who barely recognise the authority of the state or, for that matter, the Yesha Council. Tamar says she and her neighbours spoke to Theroux’s team for several hours but were not included in the programme, presumably because they were not “extreme” enough. A more damning indictment of the Western media I do not know.
After the living history in Tamar’s backyard, our conversation about The King’s Speech seems surreal. We say our goodbyes and drive through the neighbourhood on our way out. Naftali tells us of fathers and sons who fell bravely in battle, one commander famously having jumped on a grenade to save his fellows. We pass nearby a military academy. Around half of the officers in the IDF today are religious Zionists or residents of Yesha. It is difficult to imagine how such a military can be called upon to evacuate its own houses. Nevertheless, Israel is under palpable pressure. Naftali’s role is to man the breach. Not one to despair, he recognises the challenges: “What do you do when the whole world is wrong?”