My Solidarity Visit to "the Settlements"

A salute to the Jews who live where it is good for their country, if not for their tranquillity. A trip throughout Judea and Samaria.

Giulio Meotti

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צילום: עצמי

In Gush Etzion, the site for ride-sharing was full even at night with young Israelis. As if at 22.30 pm on June 12, their friends Eyal, Naftali and Gilad had never boarded the car-trap of Hamas and had never been killed after the kidnapping.

The first thing that hits you, while entering in Judea at night, is the level of darkness. It soars as you move far from Jerusalem.

To understand the “terra incognita” of Israel, the “settlements” and its inhabitants, I wanted to visit not with journalists, but with Israeli civilians. With the people who live there. I also wanted to pay a visit of solidarity with the Jews who the entire world wants to eradicate and deport from their own houses and land.

I took the direction of Hevron. “Before you go there leave me your money, because you won’t come back”, an Israeli friend from the south told me. Those Israelis are paralyzed by that very name: Hevron. I don’t understand why, since the south of Israel is much more dangerous.

Kiryat Arba’s chief rabbi, renowned halakhic luminary Rabbi Dov Lior, was not in the town that is located within walking distance of Hevron. At the tender age of eighty years, Lior is planning to move to East Jerusalem, because it is there that he can inspire other Jews. Rabbi Lior choose Beit Orot, a Jewish community at the junction of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, the neighborhood's name meaning “House of Lights”, a strategic place to keep Jerusalem united, -  not like in the campaign slogans of the Israeli governments after 1967.

I interviewed the old and cultured Elyakim Haetzni, a resident of Kiryat Arba, to understand why a German Jew named Bombach from Kiel, choose to live in Hevron after 1968. He speaks an English with a strong German accent. “Israel will not do like Czechoslovakia in 1938”, Haetzni told me “We will not do like the prime minister of Czechoslovakia Edward Benes who, under the pressures of Chamberlain, was devoured by Hitler”. The reference is to Barack Obama, the United Nations, the European Union and the leftist Israeli governments, all of whom want the Jews to abandon “the settlements”.

Haetzni told me that he choose Hevron for many reasons: “First of all for the shadows of the pogrom in 1929. It was a typically European pogrom, like in the Bialik’s poem on Kishinev. The defenseless Jews slaughtered. The trauma of the massacre was so great that the name of Hevron has terrorized the Israeli population for decades. I know soldiers who to go to Beersheba avoid Hevron because they are afraid. They have been brainwashed, all the Israeli media are in the hands of the left which is inciting against us.

"In my opinion the Jewish state has to destroy fear in the Jews. This is why I came to live here. To win the syndrome of ‘galut’, the syndrome of the
Before leaving I told them: “Be strong and safe, you are here for the entire State of Israel and its people”. I had tears in my eyes.
Diaspora. When the Israeli army liberated the city, I said to myself: ‘If we do not return to Hevron, it will be a defeat for all of Israel’.

"Hevron is also the capital of Judea. And Judea was obliterated by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He wanted to end the Judea, the name itself infuriated him. So they invented the name ‘Palestine’. My generation had to close the circle, had to heal this historical rupture”.

One day, will the Israeli soldiers come to take you away, Mr. Haetzni? “I do not believe so. The Jewish demography in the Judea and Samaria is very high [sic]. We have more children than the Arabs. Today the Jews are a third of the population in Judea and Samaria, it is impossible to evacuate 600,000 people. We are here forever. And in any case there would be a civil war. And the end of the Jewish state”.

To reach Hevron I passed through the “path of the faithful”, where in 2002 the Arab snipers killed twelve Jewish pilgrims and army officers. I met a wonderful Jewish family, Moshe and Tehila. They live with their nine children in Tel Rumeida, the highest hill of Hevron, overlooking the Arab neighborhood of Abu Sneineh. Their house is like a container for earthquake survivors.

Before leaving I told them: “Be strong and safe, you are here for the entire State of Israel and its people”. I had tears in my eyes.

Here elderly Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, grandson of the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, was killed in his own bed. At his funeral in 1998 there were thousands of people, including then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While visiting the rabbi’s house, Netanyahu said: “The walls are so thin that you can crack them with a finger”.

I met Ra’anan’s daughter, Tzipi Schlissel. “We came back here to live in Tel Rumeida because this is where the Jews live for centuries. The army has had to put a concrete wall to protect our homes. The army protects us, but it also treats us like prisoners in our city. Before the agreements of 1997, the Jews could go anywhere in the city and it was safer. We Jews of Hevron want to live in a city, not in a ghetto. A century ago, there was the same percentage of Arabs and Jews in Hevron. Then there was the pogrom and all Jews were expelled or killed. Today we want to go back at how it was a century ago”.

If Judea is hot and humid as I travel, northern Samaria is cold and rainy. From Tel Aviv, heading to Samaria, you immediately reach the impression that these heights are the most strategic place for the the security of Israel. A few kilometers inside Samaria and you already see the entire skyline of the economic capital.

In Kedumim a plaque commemorates “the first house”. Meir and Shoshana Shilo, born and raised on a kibbutz on the coast, were among the first Jews to settle here. The peculiarity of Kedumim is that it hasn’t anti-terrorism barriers. “We are against it”, Shoshana told me. “If we live behind a wall we seem weak and the Arabs attack us”. I asked them why they chose that hill. “It is a road linking Nablus and the area of Tel Aviv. Since we are here, we stopped many terrorists from going to Netanya and Petah Tikva. By being here, we protect Tel Aviv”.

During the Lebanon war of 2006, many friends from Haifa and the north found a shelter in Kedumim and other towns in Samaria, while their cities felt the missiles of Hezbollah. “Every death, every war, every disaster opens the eyes of Israel”, says Shoshana. “We said to Yitzhak Rabin to not to give guns to the Arabs and that they would use it to shoot us. We told Ariel Sharon not to take the Jews from Gaza, that Hamas would launch missiles on Tel Aviv. The Arabs are patient, they wait and work to take everything”.

Shoshana shows me a picture in her kitchen. “I put it here because my children can always see. You see my parents, just arrived from Europe, while fighting in the Palmach. To remind our children that without the guns we Jews are finished”.

After Kedumim I wanted to visit Havat Gilad and the “Noar-Gvaot”, the youth of the hills. I met their leader, Itai Zar. During the Second Intifada, the Arab terrorists killed his brother, Gilad, the head of security. “This was a very insecure place before we came”, Itai told me. “Our hills are at the center of the road between Jordan and the Israeli coast. From here, you see the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv. Every terrorist would pass through here”.

But Itai Zar explains me that “the settlements” have not only got a security purpose. “There is Zionism. This is the land of Israel, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, we have the right to live here. When my brother was killed, all the ministers and famous people came to our home. Army officers took a map and gave us permission to build. My father said to Ariel Sharon: ‘I do not want revenge, I want to build’. After the shiva, the seven days of mourning, we started coming here”.

There is a famous video after the death of Gilad Zar where Sharon visits his family. Itai’s mother shouted to then prime minister: “Tell me Arik, where have you been in those eight months? We will not bury more dead”.

After Havat Gilad, going in the direction of Nablus, the road is a Russian roulette. You see very few Israeli soldiers around. I wanted to see Elon Moreh. According to the Bible, it is the place where the Lord made a covenant with Abraham. But first I visited Yitzhar. The fog eats everything in that mountain. From up there you can see all the Israeli coast. Yet you could not be further away from the amenities of life on the coast, the high tech, the restaurants, the hotels.

Yitzhar is surrounded by six Arab villages: Burin, Orif, Asira al Qibliya, Inabus, Madma and Hawara. A big minaret dominates the road to the Jewish village. That is why the cemetery in Yitzhar is full of Jews killed in attacks. I spoke with Ezri Tubi, the security chief of Yitzhar. “It is a special colony. We do not use Arab workers here but only Jews, we do not want to depend on anyone. This synagogue was built by those who live here. All of us here serve in the army, but that does not stop us from criticizing the Israeli army when it doesn’t do its job. Yitzhar is strategic from an ideological point of view. We are the flag of the settlement in Samaria”.

I met the chief rabbi David Dudkevich. I discovered that his wife’s family is that of Enzo Sereni, a famous Italian pioneer who came to Israel, returned to Europe to fight the Nazis and was executed in Dachau by the Germans.

In Itamar I saw the beautiful new synagogue named after “the heroes of Itamar”. The little Fogels. In Elon Moreh I climbed on Mount Kabir: on the right you see Nablus, on the left the Jewish community. I compare these places to the Dolomites Mountains in Italy, which in the past protected my country from the foreign invasions.

On the way back, the tension mounts when you cross the Arab village of Hawara. Five miles of fear and distrust. On this road there have been many terror attacks. You start to breathe when you reach Tapuach’s junction.

I stopped in Peduel, where there is a memorial for flute-playing Rabbi Elimelech Shapira, who was killed in his car by a terrorist who knew that he drove to study Torah before dawn every morning.. Peduel is a small village inhabited by engineers, doctors, academics. It is famous for its “porch”. From there you can see Tel Aviv and Hadera. The same view from Elkana, which is like a villa in the jungle, but trapped in the fence. 

You understand why Israel can never withdraw from these hills and mountains. Here you win or disappear. 

In salute these Jews who choose their place of residence by what’s best for the country, rather than where it’s more comfortable or stylish to live; the Jews whose lives have been a living statement (“this is home and for this land we are ready to fight and lay down our lives”); the Jews who are wonderful reminder to the world of what a Jew is.