I arrived in Jerusalem in September of 2000 when prospects for peace in the Middle East still appeared good. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat were photographed smiling amicably at Camp David. Arafat even stated publicly that he’d soon declare Palestinian independence. But my timing left much to be desired: I arrived in Jerusalem on the same fateful day that Ariel Sharon went to pray at the Temple Mount, the day the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’ officially started. The cycle of violence escalated dramatically after that with increased housing demolitions, village closures, work and travel restrictions and political assassinations in a futile attempt to combat the increasing number of suicide bombings. On my way to sign the lease for my first apartment, I considered stopping in for a slice of pizza at a popular franchise located at the main intersection of downtown Jerusalem. I decided to continue directly to the landlord’s office rather than risk being late. Moments later the restaurant exploded and scores were killed or injured victims of a suicide bomber.
I discovered that the apartment I’d been renting had once belonged to Christian Arabs who had fled in 1948. I started thinking: I was already living in a Palestinian house, there was little to no sense of security living in Jerusalem, and the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution looked pretty dismal. Besides, I had always favoured the notion of the unified secular-democratic Israeli-Palestinian state espoused by Edward Said.
Out of curiosity I decided to investigate the possibility of moving into one of the communities on the West Bank. At the office of the Association for Americans and Canadians living in Israel I found a glossy pamphlet advertising the Gush Etzion settlement block. I decided to go on the bus tour of the settlement, leaving the following week.
The bus was only half-full and an hour late in departing. There had been a number of Israelis killed on the highway to Gush Etzion in recent months. Despite the bullet-proof reinforced plating there was not a high demand for making the dangerous bus trip. The tour participants were a motley crew of Jewish-Americans, including a former hippie turned religious from California, a nervous dot.com businessman with his wife and kids from New York, a husband-and-wife team of doctors from Ohio. All had come on a special tour to Israel for the purpose of investigating immigration to the country, specifically with the desire to live in the West Bank settlements.
During the 15-minute drive from Jerusalem we each received glossy maps of the settlement blocks in the West Bank (called by its biblical name ‘Judea and Samaria’), shown in relation to the 20 surrounding Arab states to accentuate the contrast in the extent of landmass. We also received CD-ROMs featuring a 20-minute multimedia presentation on the high quality of life enjoyed by the 10,000 settlers of Gush Etzion. With clear mountain air and breathtaking, panoramic views of the Judean Hills and Jerusalem, the region features an extensive educational network, good public transportation providing easy access to healthcare facilities, cultural activities, shopping and the Gush Etzion community centre and sports complex. Government grants and low-interest loans are given to new settlers, along with furnished flats at special low rates.
The schools are modern and spacious and include high-quality institutions offering special education, both religious and secular programmes, and parents receive a 90-per-cent discount off their children’s pre-school tuition. There are also many youth and community centres, with modern sports and recreational facilities.
The Israeli Lands Administration provides 93 per cent of settlements with discounts of between 49 and 69 per cent of the value of land for residential construction. Thousands of dollars in grants and loans are given to settler families by the Housing Ministry. I discovered that some wealthy families who have chosen to live in the West Bank receive more subsidies than a family in a poor urban neighborhood within Israel proper.
Surrounded by barbed wire and electric fences and defended by the Israeli army, the settlers we met admitted to receiving few visits from friends and relatives who live outside of the West Bank and Gaza. We were told that the majority of the settler population (over 65 per cent) is religiously non-observant, many having arrived for the generous land, housing and income-tax subsidies available for residents. Settlers we talked to highlighted the region’s 10 industrial parks, almost 100 high-tech industries, three centres for research and development, and its numerous sacred sites, such as Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, Bethlehem’s Tomb of Rachel and Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus).
Israeli public opinion is split on whether moving settlers out from the occupied territories will lead to greater peace and security. Indeed, even the term ‘occupied territory’ is disputed by the settlers, who argue that no other disputed territory is referred to with the same politically loaded term. Asked how he feels to live in an area called ‘the occupied territories’ in most parts of the world, one settler stated that: ‘Israel waged a defensive war in 1967 after it was attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. There wasn’t any intention for us to “occupy” this area; the war was imposed upon us by the Arab states. But we won, with God’s help.’
A recent immigrant from Milwaukee, he sees himself and other settlers as walking in the footsteps of Abraham, inspired by the word of the Old Testament God who told Jews to settle in the Land of Israel. Asked if he believed that the presence of settlers jeopardizes the possibilities of peace in the region, potentially risking the outbreak of a large-scale regional war, his response was both calm and interminable:
‘Did God not command us to live here? People think that if we were to leave, in strict contradiction to biblical commandments by God himself, that there would be peace. But does the world think that Islamic Jihad and Hamas would suddenly stop murdering Jews if those of us from Jerusalem, Judea, Sumaria and Gaza were to somehow suddenly leave these regions? They still claim Haifa as theirs since it is still half Arab, as well as Tel-Aviv which was originally a Jewish suburb of the Arab city of Jaffa. The Jordanians have very little coastline; they would love the beaches of Eilat. And the Syrians would love to get the Golan Heights back. So what’s left?’
I declined the various mortgage and benefits packages offered to me. I also decided against being part of a society that perpetuated such settlements. As far as I could see they could only fan the flames of hatred and block long-term solutions for peace. I left my apartment in Jerusalem and returned to my life in North America.
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