KFAR TAPUACH, ISRAELI-OCCUPIED WEST BANK - The walls of Daniel Pinner’s home in the Israeli settlement of Kfar Tapuach are lined with books. Among the political, cultural and religious texts are books by the late Meir Kahane, an American-Israeli rabbi who preached the idea of a “greater Israel” -- one that includes the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.
Kahane’s political party, Kach, also promoted the idea of expelling the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lived in the captured areas, a position that prompted the Israeli government to outlaw it in 1988 as a racist organization. Kahane was assassinated in New York two years later, but many of his ideas are still popular among some Israeli settlers, including Daniel Pinner.
“The final status is obviously going to be restoration of Jewish sovereignty from the Mediterranean shore to the River Jordan,” says Pinner, echoing Kahane’s position and firmly rejecting any idea of a sovereign Palestinian state on the captured territories.
“We have much more claim to Ramallah than to Tel Aviv,” Pinner explains, referring to the West Bank town Palestinians now use as their administrative center. “Tel Aviv only goes back 104 years, but ‘Rame,’ what the Arabs call Ramallah, goes back 4,000 years as a Jewish town.”
Land claims based on Bible
Many Israeli residents on the West Bank, like those in this 35-year-old settlement in the hills near Nablus, trace their claim to the land through religious texts dating back more than 2,000 years.
“The Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria are here to stay,” says David Ha'ivri, using the ancient biblical names for the area that roughly corresponds to what is today recognized as the West Bank. Ha'ivri is director of the Shomron Liaison office, and also lives in Kfar Tapuach. He says these communities are here to stay.
Not all Israelis feel this way. Proposals for creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel have been an integral part of peace negotiations between the two sides for decades. The “two-state solution” concept was central to peace proposals put forward by Israeli governments in 2000 and again in 2008.
And all these proposals have involved evacuation of at least some of the Israeli settlements built in the occupied regions since 1967. The United Nations considers the Israeli settlements illegal and the United States, for its part, has said repeatedly it does “not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”
More affordable housing
While some of the settlements are little more than temporary housing set up on remote rocky hilltops, others are much more substantial. A 15-minute drive from Kfar Tapuach, the modern town of Ariel is home to a different type of settler, including numerous immigrants from Russia. While many Israelis moved to the West Bank guided by their belief that God promised them this land, others came because it is much more affordable to live here than in established Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
Standing in his restaurant in Ariel, Oren Hazen is quick to say most residents in his West Bank settlement live there because it is convenient.
“Maybe 75-80 percent of the people who live here, live here because it’s comfortable; It’s cheap; it’s close to the center [of Israel],” says Hazen. “They don’t live here because they believe. It’s not like when you go east of Ariel to the small areas like Elon Moreh, Itamar and Ofra. Those people live there because they believe it’s our country.”
Ariel is a modern suburban enclave of 20,000 residents, with shopping centers, medical clinics, schools and even a university. Sixty-five percent of Ariel’s residents use the settlement as a bedroom community - commuting to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for work each day.
Settlement life is relatively cheap. Housing prices are a fraction of those in cities like Tel Aviv. Basic goods and services also are less expensive. The bus ride from Ariel to Jerusalem costs just 12 shekels ($3 U.S.), while the shorter ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is 18 shekels ($4.50), providing incentives for those who commute.
In his office not far from Hazen’s restaurant, Avi Zimmerman traces a pen along a map of Israel and the West Bank. For Zimmerman, director of American Friends of Ariel, the 1967 border will likely have to be redrawn to include the settlement he now calls home.
“I don’t use the word settlement. Settlement suggests something very transient, something temporary. That’s not the way they’ve been built. That’s not the way they’ve been developed,” says Zimmerman.
A final two-state solution could see the 1967 border altered to include some West Bank settler communities in the Israeli state. But trying to redraw those borders to include towns like Ariel - which is 11 miles inside the West Bank - has been a sticking point in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The two sides have discussed swapping land in one place for land in another, but agreement has never been achieved.
For now, Palestinians have refused to restart peace talks as long as Israel continues to expand the West Bank settlements. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords two decades ago, thousands of new Israeli settlers have moved to the West Bank. In 1996, there were around 140,000 Israeli settlers in the territory, but today estimates are that the number is approaching half a million – with another 200,000 living in East Jerusalem according to Israeli rights group B'Tselem.
But Michel Nedobora, a resident of Ariel, says eliminating the West Bank settlements would not be a guaranteed way to achieve peace.
“People see that the Jewish [settlers] left the Gaza Strip. Did it bring peace over there? No, it brought, Hamas,” says Nedobora referring to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and subsequent takeover by the hard-line Palestinian faction.
And whether Israelis moved to the West Bank settlements out of religious conviction or economic convenience, most of them are convinced they will be able to stay.
“These communities are not a bargaining chip or anything we plan to forfeit,” says Ha’ivri. “I think all agree, looking back on this 20-year process, the Oslo [peace talks] concept has failed totally. The concept that was based on swapping land for peace - removing Jewish people in order to establish a Palestinian state - has failed.”
[15 Oct '12 -The captions of the photographs in this report have been corrected to reflect the actual dates they were taken]