For many Israeli 'settlers,' their suburban home is just a place to live

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 26, 2011 

WORLD NEWS MIDEAST-GILO 4 MCT

Itamar Ben Gvir, a settler leader and spokesperson, seen with his son. His home, outside the southern West Bank settlement of Kiriyat Arba is considered by many Israelis to be at the heart of some of the radical settler movements. (Maya Levin/MCT)

MAYA LEVIN — Maya Levin/MCT

GILO, West Bank — In the little real estate office here, signs clutter the window, advertising properties with a range of prices and locations, ranging from West Jerusalem to Hebron and Efrat, two cities in the West Bank.

To the agents, there's little difference between the homes they sell in this sprawling neighborhood of high-rises and spacious streets, and those they offer just a few miles away in Jerusalem's Malcha neighborhood. Indeed, anyone driving into Gilo wouldn't know that it isn't, at least as far as international politics is concerned, just another part of a booming Jerusalem.

But Gilo, whose population includes many Jews who grew up in the United States, isn't part of Jerusalem, at least not the part of Jerusalem that the world recognizes as belonging to the Jewish state. Instead, it's risen up on land Palestinians believe should be part of any future Palestinian state.

And it is Gilo, and urban neighborhoods like it, that are the main stumbling block — though not the only one — to reopening peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which have been stalled over Israel's refusal to halt construction in what everyone calls "settlements."

Gilo hardly resembles the kind of rustic outpost that that word conjures.

"Let's not kid ourselves, does any of this look like a settlement?" asked Amnon Ben-David, 37, who was playing with his 2-year-old son at one of Gilo's sprawling parks. To one side of the park lies the Arab city of Bethlehem, to the other Jerusalem. "This is just part of Jerusalem, anyone would tell you that."

Ben-David said he and his wife moved to Gilo seven years ago because they liked the lifestyle and were able to find an inexpensive family home there.

"Politics didn't figure in our decision-making process," he said.

Last month, the Israeli government announced that it would allow 1,100 new homes to be built in Gilo, a step that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denounced as he once again rejected resuming peace talks with the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House condemned Israel's decision to expand construction in Gilo. Germany, France and Britain called the Gilo building a "slap in the face" to peace efforts. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. was "deeply disappointed" by the decision.

Ben-David welcomed the announcement, however, as "much needed." He said he knows of many young couples who have struggled to find affordable housing.

"It is easy for me to get to work in Jerusalem, the schools are good and the neighbors are good," said Ben-David. "It really, really irks me that the rest of the world feels like it is their business to comment on us building in Gilo."

That mindset underscores why the whole issue of "settlements" has become the ultimate stumbling block for negotiations toward a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. While Israeli officials acknowledge that some settlements will likely be abandoned in any agreement, Israelis increasingly do not see places such as Gilo on the negotiating table.

"I grew up in Jerusalem, and we always thought about Gilo as a part of Jerusalem. That is truly the way that all Israelis think about Gilo, there is no talk of dividing it or separating it," Ben-David said.

Before the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, Gilo was farmland, nestled between the Palestinian villages of Beit Safafa and Shuafat. But many Israelis, like Ben-David, aren't old enough to remember the days before 1967, when Jerusalem was divided into two cities, a Jewish West Jerusalem, which was ruled by the Israelis, and an Arab East Jerusalem, which had been occupied by Jordan since Israel proclaimed independence in 1948.

Now, more than 44 years after Israeli troops captured East Jerusalem, there are nearly 200,000 Jewish residents living in the Arab sector. The 1,100 new homes announced for Gilo may be the most recent controversial construction project, but it's not the largest; two months ago, Israeli officials announced that approximately 4,000 new homes would built in other parts of East Jerusalem.

According to Palestinians, the Israeli refusal to stop such construction on land the Palestinians still claim remains the most constant obstacle to the peace process.

When Palestinian President Abbas took to the stage and asked the U.N. to grant Palestinians member status, he highlighted the settlements as the "core issue" in the conflict. Netanyahu disagreed, no surprise given that his government is a coalition of political parties that support expanding Israel's presence in the West Bank.

The Netanyahu government has taken great care to distinguish between settlements in East Jerusalem and those in the West Bank. Jerusalem, said Netanyahu, should remain united as the "Jewish capital," including the land annexed in East Jerusalem after the 1967 war. Ministers in Netanyahu's government have recently suggested that Israel should formally annex the entire West Bank as well, giving the settlements there stronger standing within the Israeli government.

Hagit Ofra, from the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, points out that under international law, settlements anywhere remain illegal.

"It is all under dispute and anything beyond the 1967 lines needs to be established under international law," said Ofra. "In the big settlements there is constantly construction. These are massive cities that are treated as such by Israel." She added, however that smaller outposts in the West Bank — often consisting of several trailer homes and a cabin on a hilltop — are also seeing a push in growth.

"The settlement movement is consistently growing," she said.

That's apparent in places like Modin Illit and Ariel, two "settlements" within commuting distance of Israel's largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Neither existed before 1967, but both now include towering skyscrapers.

"I didn't move here because I'm right wing. I'm not even political!" said Leah Grabosky, a 57-year-old mother of two who immigrated to Israel from Russia 15 years ago.

Today, she lives in a split-level home in Ariel, which was established near several Palestinian villages in 1978 and caters to a large immigrant population. She says that it takes her husband less than 45 minutes to reach his job in Tel Aviv each morning.

"For the price we paid for a one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv I have a whole house here. I have a community," she said.

On a weekday afternoon, she sat with a group of friends at the newly built Ariel community center and pool. Young mothers pushed strollers nearby and looked over posters advertising daycare programs and night classes.

"It's like small-country living versus the big city," said Annie Levine, a newlywed from New Jersey who hopes to move to Ariel this year. "Everyone here is more friendly and polite and looks after each other."

She had come to spend the day with her friends, she said, and was in the process of persuading her husband to purchase a home in Ariel, where the government will build more than 700 housing units this year.

Israelis who oppose expansion in areas that Palestinians claim say government policy is clearly intended to encourage Israelis to move into the disputed areas, making a negotiated solution all but impossible.

"The government makes it attractive for Israelis to live in the settlements," said Peace Now's Ofra.

The group points to statistics it's gathered to show that the government is building in Palestinian areas at a rate nearly double construction in Israel itself.

In the West Bank, the government builds one housing unit per 123 residents, while in Israel the rate is one unit for every 235 residents.

For Levine, that means being able to buy an affordable first home.

"It's almost like the same reason my family lived in New Jersey and not Manhattan," she said.

She added that she "wasn't bothered" by the politics of living in the West Bank, and that the majority of the Israelis living in the settlements were there for economic reasons, not political.

The left-wing Israeli group Our House estimates that about two-thirds of Israeli settlers would be willing to move within the 1967 lines of Israel if they were given compensation to buy a similar home to what they currently own in the West Bank.

Avshalom Vilan, a member of the Israeli Parliament in the left-wing Meretz Party, divides settlers into three groups — ideological settlers, economic settlers and ultra-orthodox religious settlers. He said that the two latter groups could be enticed back to Israel with the promise of equivalent housing.

Ideological settlers, however, would never voluntarily leave the West Bank, which they believe is part of Israel's God-given territory. It's those settlers who often live in the more remote outposts that consist of anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred homes. Some of these settlers espouse what's known here as a "price tag" policy, which includes attacks on Palestinians as payback for what they believe are Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

The northern West Bank outpost of Yitzhar is considered by many to be the heart of the price tag movement. Young men who attend the religious seminary in Yitzhar are regularly identified by police as being responsible for attacks against Palestinians, though they are rarely arrested.

Few in Yitzhar are willing to talk to people outside their community, though one young man, who identified himself as Chaim, said that the outpost wanted to "protect itself."

"We have ideas that are not always popular on the outside ... they aren't understood. But we know the truth about the Palestinians. If they had the chance they would kill each of us in our beds. We are fighting fire with fire," he said.

When asked about a Molotov cocktail that was thrown at a Palestinian home just minutes from Yitzhar last month, Chaim confessed that he knew the young men responsible.

"I'm not saying they came from here, but yeah, I know the guys," he said. "They were doing the right thing. Defending our land. We need to teach the Palestinians who is in charge here and stop thinking that being 'soft' will get us anything."

That kind of talk embarrasses Linda Mesani, a mother of four who lives in Gilo.

"They are an embarrassment to the rest of us," said Mesani. "The rest of the world think we are all like them. They are dirty and wild and become the face of the settler movement."

Many analysts, however, believe that those settlers form the core of the movement — and their numbers are growing.

"There has been an increase in support for the ideological movements," said Itamar Ben Gvir, a settler leader and spokesman. "There is deeper support and understanding for the role of our communities in the Jewish land."

His home, outside the southern West Bank settlement of Kiriyat Arba, is considered by many Israelis to be at the center of some of the radical settler movements. During recent rallies, settlers there held signs announcing they would "Shed blood or die" before leaving their homes.

Mesani said she read about the protests in Kiriyat Arba from her home in Gilo.

"I understand where they are coming from, but it's not what I think," she said. "The rest of the world has to understand there are all kinds of settlers, and most of us are just living here."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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