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(Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)
(Heidi Levine for The Globe and Mail)

Do these Israeli settlers block the path to peace? Add to ...

A secular Israeli, Mr. Dayan was born in Argentina and now runs a software company. From his majestic, modern home in the affluent settlement of Maale Shomron., you can see the office towers of Tel Aviv, just 20 kilometres away. He is an outspoken critic of the hilltop youth and other extremists, but he’s convinced that the settlements of the West Bank are “irreversible.” Ordering their forcible eviction, he says, “would break the backbone of Israeli society, and no responsible Israeli prime minister will do that.”

At least, not without paying a steep price. Israel’s settlers count on the fact that, to remain in office, successive Israeli coalition governments have been beholden to small, right-wing pro-settler parties, as well as religious parties that are increasingly committed to retaining Israel’s “whole land.”

Leaving aside the more than 200,000 Israelis who live in the parts of Jerusalem captured from Jordan in 1967, there are three main categories among the 300,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank: quality-of-lifers, who moved across the Green Line just far enough to take advantage of generous government subsidies and live in homes they couldn’t possibly afford in Israel proper; security patriots, mostly secular people who see the occupation of the territory as a contribution to the state; and religious nationalists who adhere to a historic, Biblical view of what Israel should look like.

The quality-of-lifers, though numerous – about 150,000 – are pragmatic. They will vote to remain in their attractive communities, but they will not fight to retain them. The security patriots – perhaps 20,000 – would never think of fighting against Israeli soldiers, but their numbers have declined as a proportion of the West Bank communities.

It is the religious zealots who have grown in number and intensity. From the few dozen that first settled in some formerly Jewish areas such as Hebron and Gush Etzion, they have grown to about 130,000. Their birth rate is four times that of secular settlers, and their commitment to the faith and to their rabbis is unshakeable.

Drawing on the original Zionist pioneering spirit, they have entrenched themselves in the territory and see themselves as defending a Jewish beachhead, against both hostile Arabs (they don’t like to use the term Palestinian) and against their own government.

Every night at dusk in Ramat Gilad, just as the muezzins are calling Muslims to evening prayer in the villages below, a switch is thrown and a giant Star of David is illuminated from the highest point of the hilltop. It can be seen for miles.

It marks the dusty hilltop cluster of seven caravans that is home to Michal Shoham. It was named for her brother, Gilad Zar, an Israeli regional security officer who was killed by Palestinian gunmen a decade ago, and it’s one of the settlement outposts planted defiantly in the middle of the mostly Arab Samarian hills in the northern West Bank. It has remained in place despite repeated Israeli army efforts to dismantle it.

“We want everyone to know this land is ours,” says Mrs. Shoham, 48. It was “given to us by God.”

She points a little way to east to where God is said to have entered into his covenant with Abraham, promising this area to the chosen people, the Jews.

“No one has the right to give it away,” Mrs. Shoham says, taking a swipe at the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which said even this week that it would release much of the West Bank for the establishment of a Palestinian state. She takes another swipe at U.S. President Barack Obama for his “pro-Arab” meddling, pushing Israel to compromise on land.

The settlement of the “occupied territories” began within days of the 1967 war. Until that surprise victory, most everyone, from Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben Gurion on down, was content to build a country within the lines established by the Arab-Israeli fighting of 1948-49 (about 30 per cent more territory than the 1947 UN partition plan had promised the Jewish state).

But after the victorious Six-Day War, requests to settle the captured land flooded in: east Jerusalem and its Old City, Kfar Etzion near Bethlehem, the ancient city of Hebron. All these were in demand because of historic Jewish settlements in them and because of their connections to the Bible. It was land, people said, that shouldn’t be given back.

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