When I first met a settler, we were sitting in a Jerusalem cafe, trying to come up with the best joke about the bomb. It had gone off a few hours earlier, in a narrow lane off the Mahane Yehuda market, a couple of streets north-west of us in the Jewish western part of the city. A middle-aged couple were chatting to a well-dressed young woman and the manager of the cafe.
“I know flats are expensive up there,” said the husband, “but some people will go to any lengths to lower property prices.” Everyone laughed. Few people were out. Those who were wandering through the beautiful, cafe-littered yards and alleyways all seemed to know each other.
I asked the girl, Noa, about her opinion of the crisis. Her response was simple. She sipped her coffee, played with her rather chic, blue-framed glasses, and declared: “I think we should kill all the Arabs. It’s the only solution.” Her nonchalance and honesty seemed breathtaking, but she wasn’t winding me up.
A few questions about her background made things a little clearer. Noa lives on a Jewish settlement, Beit El, in the heart of the West Bank – or, as she would call it, Judea and Samaria. The only people left in the cafes of downtown Jerusalem were the settlers, waiting to make sure things were calm before taking the dangerous bus ride back through Palestinian territory.
“Are you scared?” Noa asked me. “We gave the Arabs a chance to behave, but they keep attacking us, bombing us, at home, on the roads, everywhere. The only way we can ever be sure of our safety is if we expel them,” she said. Noa herself is not religious – indeed, fewer than half of the 200,000 settlers are thought to be “ideological” – but she is determined to live on a settlement when she leaves home. The reason? Like many other settlers, she found herself drawn to the promise of comfortable homes at affordable prices within commuting distance of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Let the Haredim, or Orthodox Jews, seek the chance of a life cut off from the secular world and its temptations – but for their non- practising brethren, it’s not God but real estate that makes the West Bank so alluring.
At the end of our conversation, Noa demanded to see my notebook, and spent ten minutes poring over the words. “Settlers get a bad press, you know,” she explained.
Even from Israelis, it seems. A friend in Tel Aviv laughed at me when I asked her if she knew any settlers. “Of course not!” she said. “They’re awful: they’re all extremists. You won’t get any sense from them.” And yet, living on a settlement has never been so popular. In the past seven years, their number has risen by 85,000. Ehud Barak’s government cannot seem to approve enough of them – although what they approve are “quality of life settlements” close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rather than the more contentious “political” settlements.
Sheina, a first-year student who recently moved to the huge Ariel settlement in the northern West Bank, is a case in point. “It’s not really such a political statement to live in Ariel,” she said, after a day of classes at the university. She seemed indifferent to the possible demise of most settlements, and determined to shut herself off from events. “The truth is, I don’t know much about what’s happening. I don’t want to hear about it. That way, I won’t be scared,” she admitted cheerfully.
Perhaps a confident obstinacy is the one unifying feature among today’s settlers. Driving across the West Bank, through the hills covered with Mediterranean scrub and olive groves, Ariel and the hundreds of other settlements appear uncompromising and defiant. The pure white chunks of suburbia dominate the hills, their flats, supermarkets and parks ringed by fences and watchtowers.
If settlements have a future, then Ariel is it. With a population of 15,000, projected to expand to 100,000, its self-contained communities stretch eight miles across the West Bank (itself only 30 miles wide). To many residents, Ariel, although deep inside the West Bank, is just a convenient and cheap place to live, an untroubled drive from Tel Aviv, even now. Sheina is secular, like 85 per cent of Ariel’s citizens, but she sees the West Bank as a perfectly reasonable place to escape from Tel Aviv’s urban sprawl – for the time being, at least.
Although scattered throughout the occupied territories, the majority of settlements in the embryonic West Bank cluster around the umbilical corridor that feeds Jerusalem, or the city’s eastern flank. Many of these are likely to be annexed to Israel in a future peace deal – providing suburbs and buffer zones to Israel’s major conurbations.
But it is the more isolated, political settlements that demand the vast infrastructure of road bypasses, checkpoints and junctions necessary to ensure safe travel for Israelis through Palestinian-held areas. Many claim they provide the major symbol of Israeli occupation – creating, as they do, the points of friction where violence has broken out.
Half an hour’s drive down one such road took me to the city of Hebron. The eastern half of the city is still under full Israeli control and contains the two most highly charged settlements in the entire region: Kiryat Arba and central Hebron. The 30,000 Arabs in the Israeli-controlled sector have been under a punishing curfew for weeks now: they are allowed to leave their houses for only two hours every few days.
The central settlement is unlike any other in the territories: its houses and courtyards are scattered in the Arab town. In such violent times, as Arab gunmen and Israeli soldiers exchange fire almost every night, only a severe curfew can meet the security needs of the 500 Jewish residents.
As I walked through the near-deserted streets, the few settlers outside seemed unwilling to talk. Grim-faced soldiers were in position at every corner, or on the gothic watchtowers often built on top of Palestinian blocks. The atmosphere was terrifying, ghostlike, apocalyptic. So was the language from those willing to exchange a few words. Most people thought there would be a war in a matter of days, and that they would all be gassed in an Iraqi attack. As men led their families into basement shelters, it was easy to see how such ill-informed fantasies could take hold.
A group of young settlers carrying Uzis were lounging against a jeep. “We just shot three Arabs in the next street,” said one, smiling. “Now the dogs are eating them.” I later discovered that no one had died in Hebron that day, so he was just trying to unnerve me. With the sound of gunfire crackling across the town, he had succeeded. We started talking, and it became clear that his determination to stay was motivated more by nationalist than religious zeal – a harsh enthusiasm close to the original frontier spirit of Zionism. His great interest in discussing drugs hardly seemed devout; but he was certainly familiar with the Torah, using it to defend the killing of Palestinians when they fired first – he insisted that this was always the order of engagement.
The question of settler violence is almost impossible to investigate in such a closed environment. Certainly, allegations of beatings, destruction of property and even murder are commonplace, but usually denied by the settlers, who claim they only give as good as they get. Yet, this summer, even leaders of the Israeli Defence Force expressed their fears that the settlements were creating a security risk through the hatred they engendered.
I confessed to David Wilder, the demure spokesman for the settlement, that I still could not understand the violent beliefs of young settlers such as Noa. “I don’t know if it’s possible to understand it,” he said. “It’s certainly not my reaction. I try to teach my children that [this] shouldn’t be their reaction. But you have to understand how people have grown up here. It’s very difficult when you’re constantly attacked, when you know people who have died, when you bury people all the time. But to be honest, it’s just an expression. Especially after a terrorist attack.”
His own approach to dealing with the crisis sounds extreme: deportation of stone-throwers, on the second offence, with their families. “It’s inhuman, whatever, but it would have stopped it. People would have done anything to stop their kids going out. And at least it would have prevented people from being killed, because that’s the worst thing. Why do so many people have to die?”
As settlers increasingly come under more organised and lethal attacks, Wilder is exasperated by the situation, yet he feels vindicated. The al-Aqsa intifada is something the settlers have been predicting for years: Arafat’s return to terrorism.
The settlers’ tragedy, he explains, is that they alone recognise the threat posed by the ambitions of the Palestinians. While they place themselves and their families at great risk every day, they are reviled by almost everyone. Yet, were it not for them, no Jew would be able to visit the Tomb of the Patriarch, and Arab snipers would be firing not at their small communities, but at Tel Aviv. For their trouble, it seems, the settlements may be dismantled, dear friends will have died in vain, and the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world will have begun.
He stresses that his position is simply based on an unfortunate and dangerous reality. “I believe that everybody who wants to live in the state of Israel should be able to,” he explains. “I don’t see why you have to throw people out. But – and this is where I sound extremist – that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody has to have exactly the same rights. If I give three million Arabs the right to vote, they can change the state from a Jewish state to an Arab state.”
As night fell quickly over the town, Wilder drove me between the buildings, headlights off to avoid sniper fire. Here, windows were struck by gunfire every other night; there, a terrible murder had been committed by terrorists two years before. But it struck me as odd how cheerfully the children seemed to be playing in the playgrounds, even after dark. Perhaps they are just accustomed to the atmosphere, but this new generation seemed even more instilled with confidence than their parents. It was in marked contrast to the fear in the eyes of people peeping from the balconies and shutters of the silent Arab houses.
“To allow a person to live his own life, to rule over his own life, in his own city, that’s fine,” allowed Wilder, ironically. “But that doesn’t mean I have to give him the ability to destroy the essence of my state.”
The settlements have always been a gamble – they will either ensure the future prosperity and security of Israel or recklessly endanger it. As the wagons become encircled and the settlers are drawn increasingly into the conflict, the endgame is beginning.
The existence of Hebron, and the hardline settlements like it, is based on a belief that the Palestinians have an insatiable desire for conflict. The outside world, and most Israelis, still cling to the hope that they are wrong, and that the mistrust can be dismantled, along with its hilltop incarnations.