The term settlements does not do justice to what Israeli Jews have built on the hilltops of the West Bank. Subdivisions comes closer in those whose winding lanes, red-tiled roofs, bougainvillea and tricycles create a suburban splendor of sorts. In other spots, industrial park would be more accurate, with Israelis having notched scores of factories — making bagels, aluminum, chicken nuggets — into stony slopes where for centuries commerce had consisted of shepherd boys and their flocks.I never visited Eli, but from the satellite image you can see the vacant part between a row of houses on the west and the main part of town:
...Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he'll walk away from the [negotiating] table if Israel resumes building on the West Bank, whose territory would form the rump of any Palestinian state. Israel argues that the moratorium demonstrated its good faith and now it's Abbas' turn.
"I do hope the Palestinian side understand this is the test case for the idea of compromise," says Dan Meridor, a moderate in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meridor, the Minister of Intelligence, has suggested a specific compromise: to resume construction next week, but only in settlements that both parties, in previous talks, have agreed would remain on the Israeli side of a border with a future Palestinian state. The densely populated West Bank settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the separation barrier are home to 200,000 of the approximately 270,000 settlers. The Israelis argue that making those settlements denser would do no new harm to Palestinian aspirations.
In Meridor's proposal, the freeze on construction would continue in places like Eli, a town of 3,000 way out in the middle of the West Bank. A largish blob on maps, in reality much of Eli stands vacant, settlers having put up houses on the edge like pioneers circling wagons.
"We built at the perimeter with a plan to fill in," says Tamar Asraf, whose home overlooks the ruins of ancient Shiloh, where Jewish tribes are said to have worshipped for more than 300 years after arriving from Egypt. Asraf describes the thrill of finding pottery from their feasts on the hillside below her back door.
"We feel like we've returned home," she says. "There was a gap of 2,000 years."
...[S]ettlers lately are playing the security card, arguing that their presence on the hilltops of the West Bank helps ensure the safety of the coastal plain below. It matters now more than ever who holds the high ground, goes the argument, since missiles rained down from other areas from which Israel withdrew — Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
But the sense of purpose that so impressed Nissim has deep roots in faith. What the world calls the West Bank is known to religious nationalist Jews as Judea and Samaria, land they say was promised them in the Scriptures that double as history here. In settling here, some believe themselves to be fulfilling a condition for the emergence of the Messiah Jews still await. But in the coffee shop at Shiloh — plans for a more elaborate visitor's center being on hold by the freeze — the elected head of the settlers argues only realpolitik.
"How'd we get here in the first place?" says Daniel Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, which formed in the 1970s as Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful). "We got here because of an Arab war they fought winner-take-all."
...[T]he point that settler advocates are making now is that removing settlements would also mean evacuating most if not all of the 10,000 Israeli troops now stationed there to guard them. And in recent years, wherever Israel has pulled back its forces, the empty space has soon been filled by extremists — Hizballah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza — and their missiles.
"There are people who say we're messianic and all this, but we are the people with our feet most on the ground," says Dayan. "The ones who say a Palestinian state will solve everything, they are messianic. They are the ones detached from reality."
It is not only recently that residents of Yesha have been talking about the security implications of any withdrawal; it has been a key talking point for years. But since reporters love the "messianic" angle that message has been lost in the glare of stories about how fanatic and religious and violent these residents supposedly are. Even this article only hints at the many secular Israelis who live on the other side of the Green Line (you know, the "internationally recognized border" that was never internationally recognized as a border before 1967.)