EFRAT, West Bank — Adjusting their baseball caps to get a better view, half a dozen young settlers surveyed a hilltop outside the West Bank Jewish settlement of Efrat.
They concluded that it looked like southern California, and the resemblance made the Americans feel at home.
"I used to think that Cali was the most beautiful place in the world. But then God showed me this place, and I knew it was where I was supposed to live," said Michael, a 28-year-old who'd give only his first name because he said he's been arrested while taking part in right-wing protests.
Michael left a comfortable apartment in Sherman Oaks in suburban Los Angeles just over a year ago to make his home in the West Bank Jewish settlements and outposts that are considered illegal under international law.
"The rest of the world, including the U.S. president, feels like they can tell Jews where to live. I'm an American, but I'm a Jew first. It is our duty to settle this historic land," Michael said.
Michael is among the more conservative members of the settler movement, the nearly 500,000 Jews who live amid 2.4 million Palestinians on land that Israel conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.
While he believes that the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria belong to the Jewish people by divine writ, many more settlers live in eastern suburbs of Jerusalem and in the West Bank for economic and convenience reasons that have nothing to do with politics or religion.
The future of all of them, however, and of Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its undivided capital, remain major obstacles to the Obama administration's efforts to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered a 10-month freeze on new settlement construction in the West Bank to get the Palestinians back to the table, but he's vowed to continue expanding the settlements around East Jerusalem.
President Barack Obama has taken a somewhat harder line on the settlements than his predecessor, George W. Bush, did, calling them "dangerous" and calling on Israel to "restrain from further construction" in the West Bank, land that's earmarked for a future Palestinian state.
"The administration's policy on settlements is very clear," said a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. "The U.S. doesn't accept the legitimacy of Israeli settlements, and we view the expansion of settlements as illegitimate."
American citizens, however, are major political and financial supporters of the settlements, emigrating to live in them and funneling tens of millions of dollars to them through tax-exempt nonprofit organizations such as the New York-based Central Fund of Israel; The Hebron Fund, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Christian Friends of Israel, the U.S. branch of which is based in Charlotte, N.C.
The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics said that as of 2008, there were 36,700 North Americans and Europeans living in West Bank settlements. The Israeli political group Peace Now, which opposes settlement activity as an obstacle to making peace with the Palestinians, says the percentage of Americans in West Bank settlements is "significantly higher" than the percentage living in Israel.
Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now, said that Americans have always played a key role in the settlements. Among the movement's prominent leaders are David Wilder from Bergen County, N.J., and activists Baruch Marzel of Boston and Rabbi Eliezer Waldman of New York City.
The so-called "price tag" policy, in which Israeli settlers take revenge for actions against them by attacking or destroying Palestinian property, originated with a group of English-speaking settlers in the northern West Bank.
Israeli authorities have condemned the "price tag" doctrine and jailed at least three settlers on suspicion that they directly engaged in "price tag" activities.
Michael from California, who supports the "price tag" attacks, calls himself a settler activist.
"I came here because I believe it is my duty . . . to fight for Israel against those that want to give it away," Michael said. "Especially with what Obama is doing — I want to show that not all Americans have bought the Palestinian narrative (that the West Bank is part of a future Arab state).
For Michael and his friends, any concessions in pursuit of a peace agreement with the Arabs are unthinkable.
He thinks the settlements have everything he needs, including their own baseball and softball teams. He discusses building a football field, but pauses to ask if the construction would fall under Netanyahu's freeze on settlement construction.
"One day," he said. "God willing, they'll be enough Americans here that we'll have a whole league."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY