A7 Exclusive: My week with the 'settlers': Talking to the people

Part III of the report of our intrepid columnist and non-Jewish Zionist.

Giulio Meotti

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צילום: עצמי

I climb up to Tel Rumeida, the hardest place to visit in Hevron, where 18 brave families reside, the most daring. Tehila lives in a trailer with ten children. The walls of her house are filled with religious books. His neighbor was the venerable Torah scholar and grandson of Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan, killed in his bed in 1998. When Ariel Sharon evacuated Gaza, Tehila went to live there for three months in protest against the withdrawal.

“We gave rifles to the Palestinians and they used them against Jews”, Baruch Marzel told me. “Then we gave them 97 percent of the city. We want to live in Hevron, to be majority. Today we are not a majority only because the Arabs massacred the Jews who lived here in 1929. If we have no right to live here, where can we go back to? Poland? Germany? We tried that and it was not very pleasant. Netanyahu must say to the world: ‘This is our land’. They come from all over the world to tell us that we must be kind, tolerant, but to them, the English, I say: ‘The Muslims will do to you what they did to us Jews in 1929.’”

Noam Arnon is the spokesman of the Jewish community in Hevron: “Oslo has destroyed this area and peace. Peace is when people speak to one another. Oslo has separated people. Now we want to create a normal life from the ruins. I do not believe that peace can be obtained by a crime, such as the destruction of synagogues in Gaza”.

Israelis in the coastal area where Tel Aviv is located, however, think that guarding the Jews of Hevron costs too much. “Do you know how much Israel spends to protect Tel Aviv?”, Arnon told me. “From air, sea, land, Tel Aviv is protected. Once you have decided that the existence of something is important, it does no matter how much it costs to defend it. Hevron is the core of Jewish life. Without Hevron, there is no Tel Aviv; but without Tel Aviv there is no Hevron either, because as a small community we could not survive without a state. And Europe is now investing millions of dollars in building a state, the Palestinian State, in which Jews are not allowed to live. A Jüdenrein state”.

Those kilometers between Hevron and Othniel are the most dangerous kilometers in Judea: 25 Israelis have lost their lives in attacks on this road. The last victim, several months ago, was Rabbi Michael Mark, murdered while driving with his wife and children. The road becomes a Russian roulette when it starts to be the 356 road after Kiryat Arba, the town adjacent to Hevron. It is easy for a terrorist lurking at the roadside to shoot and disappear into an Arab village. High on a hill there is a large Israeli military base. The minarets of Hevron dominate the landscape.

The Beit Haggai community is resting on the side where there have been many attacks. You have to drive another ten kilometers before finding other signs of Israeli life. 

A yellow gate separates the world and Otniel. We meet Benny Kalmanson, director of the rabbinical academy and Hesder yeshiva, a well known Holocaust and Jewish music scholar, who carries a gun. Kalmanson teaches Jewish history: “On these walls you can see the Fascist newspapers, there is also the ghetto of Rome and the Manifesto of the race”, Kalmanson told me. He then pointed out Otniel’s treasure: “Here you see two pages retrieved at Auschwitz, where the head of the Sonderkommando who worked in the gas chambers, Salmen Gradewski, wrote a diary. Here in Othniel we consider ourselves humanists, we want a dialogue with the Palestinians, but we also know that we must be strong. In 2002 I was here during the attack and a year ago I lost my brother in law in an attack, Micky Mark”. Kalmanson leads us on the site of that terrible 2002 massacre: “It was Sabbath, students were dancing, when they heard the shots in the kitchen. The boys on kitchen duty were locked in with the terrorists, one of them had the courage and presence of mind and quickly threw away the key to the dining room, thus saving the lives of all the others. I have a message for Europe: if you want to preserve your liberal and humanistic ideals, you must also be strong”.

We retake the road, which is more and more uninhabited, towards the Beit Yatir settlement, overlooking the desert city of Arad, that of Amos Oz’s novels. To get there you pass the small community of Shamoa, guarded by a soldier. Then the outpost of Asael, destroyed and rebuilt several times. To enter Yatir you pass a big checkpoint. We are welcomed by IDF Colonel Rabbi Moshe Hager-Lau, who is lecturing to a hundred students. He is a close relative of former Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau.

“I’ve lived here for thirty years, I founded Yatir, we wanted a farming colony”, Hager, deputy commander of a division of tanks, told me. “In the Negev desert today we have tomatoes, potatoes, vineyards. From here you can see the Sinai, Jordan, Dimona, the nuclear power plant. This valley is mentioned in the Bible. There were Jews in Yatir already three thousand years ago. We came back here to study, to work and to be the shield of defense of Israeli society. The terrorists want to get to Tel Aviv, but we are here in the middle. Everyone knows that our presence is important here to all Israel. The problem is radical Islam, not the Jews building homes in Judea and Samaria. My grandfather and my uncle were killed at Treblinka. The only place where Jews can defend themselves is Israel. But we need to improve, this is not Switzerland”. Hager shows us his gun. “In 1976 I was at a movie theater in Tel Aviv and I heard gunshots. Terrorists had attacked the Hotel Savoy. I didn’t have the gun. Since then it is always with me”.  

Going back to Jerusalem I went by way of the most impressive trip a Jew can travel in this area. 10 kilometers inside the Palestinian Authority territory. The sign for Negohot indicates the need to climb. Then the notice: “Israelis are not allowed.” We proceed among two or three Palestinian villages, holding our breath. At the end of the road you arrive at the Negohot community. Shaked Avraham, a seven month old baby, was killed by a Palestinian terrorist sniper who entered the community while its residents were celebrating the Jewish New Year.

Asaf Fried, a programmer for the Bank Leumi in Lod, welcomed me at his home. From his terrace, you can see everything, from Gaza to Tel Aviv including the Ashkelon plant.

“This community was built by Menachem Begin in exchange for the destruction of the settlements in the Sinai in 1982”, Fried told me. “I have lived here since 1997, when I arrived with my wife. Since then my ten children have born here. There was not anything here, it was barren and never cultivated. Every day a truck brought us drinking water. The government expected that Negohot would collapse by itself. We have not made it possible. Today there are 50 families. "

"Ehud Barak in 1999 gave our road to the Palestinian Authority, it was an experiment. For seven years, that road was closed because of the attacks. Before that it took half an hour driving to get home, in the Intifada I needed two and a half hours to do a roundabout route. We organized a strike, with our children, at the roadside. I do not live here as a reservist, I was in Gaza to fight the last war. I live here as a Jew: it is our country, our land. My grandfather came here in 1935, then he returned to Europe to rescue Holocaust survivors. For me, the creation of Israel is part of the redemption”.

Asaf does not leave us at the door to his home. He accompanies us back those ten kilometers with his car. His gun was a relief.