Mr. Binyamin did not deny that there have been acts of violence against Palestinians and their property carried out by youths of Yitzhar. But he argued that “Jews in Judea and Samaria suffer from real terrorism” such as the murder in March of five members of a family in the nearby settlement of Itamar.
“To come along and accuse people when they respond to this sort of thing,” he said, “is like accusing a hungry child of stealing bread.”
Settlers may be split on whether the hilltop youths’ tactics are justified, but they and their supporters share a sense of urgency. As was the case in 1973, when pressure was building on the Israeli government to return the West Bank to Jordan in exchange for peace, settlers today believe that even the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to yield to international pressure and give their land to a Palestinian state.
“The international community today is obsessed with this immediate solution of two states,” says Mr. Dayan, the Yesha leader. “It is futile.”
Having a Palestinian state on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Mr. Dayan says, is not a formula for peace. “Peace will come if the perception of Israel is that it cannot be beaten,” he says. “We [the settlements]are not an obstacle to peace. … We strengthen Israel’s perception of being a strong country and therefore we bring peace closer.”
Esther Karisch and Benny Katzover, the current leaders of two of the first settlements founded in Samaria, know that their communities are too far from the Green Line ever to be included in any land swap. They, along with two regional youth leaders, have broken away from Yesha to plan their own defences. What will they do if the soldiers come to evict them?
“We will fight,” says Ms. Karisch without hesitation. “We will not kill anybody, I promise. … But we will do almost everything except this.”
Mrs. Shoham of Ramat Gilad says the same: “I will fight for my home like a tigress fighting for her cubs.”
Is compromise possible? Not according to Mr. Dayan. The maximum he believes Israel can afford to offer in negotiations isn’t close to the minimum that Palestinian leaders need. However, “that’s not as terrible as it sounds,” he insists.
“We can reach a modus vivendi – an accommodation that is less than peace, less than a final-status solution – but that will make the life of all of us, Israelis and Palestinians, better.”
Such a situation “has its shortcomings,” Mr. Dayan acknowledges, including continuing to withhold full political rights from the Palestinians. But if both sides work to improve Palestinian living conditions, it’s better than the futile peace process, he says.
This idea – a well-provided, semi-autonomous Palestinian authority – is the most today’s West Bank settlers say they’ll agree to. Tomorrow’s settlers, with their radical yeshiva educations, likely won’t support even that.
Hani and Eyal Shvalb, both 22, are one face of that future. Both are children from other settlements who have moved to ever-expanding Elon Moreh, that spot where God spoke to Abraham.
Mr. Shvalb is in the yeshiva, and Ms. Shvalb has given birth to their first child, now four months old. They plan to have nine or 10.
“In another 20 years there will be a Jewish religious majority here,” Mr. Shvalb says proudly, referring to all of Israel, including the occupied territories. And there will be no place for a Palestinian state, he says. “If there were two states here, there would be war.”
Mr. Shvalb, about the same age as some of the hilltop youth, describes the Palestinians as children crying for candy that they should not have.
As the fire spread that day outside Yitzhar, some of the Israeli settlers grew worried it might actually reach their community. It came close, burning scrub and grass right up to the entrance.
A few days later, the guard at the settlement’s entrance gate explained the cause of the scorched bushes and earth just below the gate – at least as it had been told to him.
“The Arabs set a fire,” he said. “They tried to burn us out.”
Patrick Martin is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.