Life in the settlements
Sanguine in the face of a fraught future
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met this week after peace talks stalled 18 months ago over the continuing refusal by Israel to stop Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank. So what is it like to be Jewish and live amid the tension?
Bethlehem is where the Christmas story began, located at present in what is commonly known as the West Bank, the area which Palestinians see as part of their state, while Jewish settlers see it as part of the “land of Israel”. But it was in Samaria, to the north of Bethlehem, that my husband and I spent Christmas Day on our recent visit to Israel.
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While we were there, we saw four Jewish families. We were wondering how they felt in the current climate, not least since Israel would appear more isolated and vulnerable both in the wake of the Arab Spring and the ever-increasing threat from Iran. More pressingly, with Unesco recognising a state of Palestine and the Palestinians lobbying for recognition from the United Nations itself, we wondered how they saw their future in the West Bank. We, ourselves, somewhat apprehensive as to what we might encounter while travelling in that area, were surprised to find an environment of tranquillity. We first visited Matan El – “a Gift from Gd” – a remote outpost of some 16 young families and a few unmarried individuals. People living there are extremely right-wing in their political views. The couple we met had been married for just over a year and had a beautiful baby son. The young woman was from Ethiopia while her husband was born in Israel. They were living in a caravan and mentioned that no permanent buildings were allowed in their settlement. In fact the residents had built a synagogue but this was not permitted. After intense negotiations, it was agreed that the synagogue would be boarded up rather than pulled down. Now services are held in one of the caravans.
Access to Matan El is via a narrow, winding road through a desolate but impressive landscape – bare, mountainous terrain dotted with scattered olive trees, and described, in Hebrew, as nof Bereishit, “a view from the time of Creation”. Despite the fact that there is no fence or security guard at Matan El, the young couple seemed perfectly happy and expressed no fears about the future, believing that God had given them this place and would protect them. This sentiment, shared undoubtedly by many settlers, is hardly conducive to peace.
From there we drove to Ginot Shomron – Gardens of Samaria – a fairly large and more established settlement located equidistant from the Arab towns of Qalqilya and Nablus. There we met a more mature couple, the husband originally from Argentina and his wife
Jewish settlers build a makeshift synagogue at Maoz Esther, near the Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, north-east of the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: CNS
from England. In their ground-floor flat, we also met Abbas, a Palestinian builder from a nearby village, who, with his fellow workers, was constructing an additional bedroom and bathroom to make the home more comfortable for the couple’s children and grandchildren when visiting.
In fact, the living room of the house had already been extended, as our hostess pointed out with great pleasure. We were rather surprised that, in the uncertain political and security climate, our hosts felt it worthwhile spending money on developing their home, but they seemed perfectly sanguine. It was certainly gratifying to witness the cordial relationship they seemed to have with Abbas who, we were told, had been given a key to their home.
Equally sanguine seemed the young family we visited in Kedumim – “Antiquity” – an established settlement even deeper in the West Bank territory. The young couple, the husband a computer engineer working in a bank near Tel Aviv and his wife a teacher, also live in a caravan with their three young sons and have been living there since their marriage more than seven years ago. They are planning, however, to move to a flat in a building under construction in the settlement. Construction had been held up due to the previous settlement freeze and had only restarted after the failed peace talks with the Palestinians. The young woman was born in Kedumim and most of her family – parents and six siblings – live there. When we arrived, her husband was not yet at home, since neither Christmas Day nor Sunday is a holiday in Israel. We learned that she had gone back to work now that her third son was more than a year old. Indeed, we were surprised to hear that she drives herself to the school she teaches in on the other side
8 | THE TABLET | 7 January 2012