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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 ...

Then there was the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights captured from Syria, and the Sinai and Gaza Strip taken from Egypt. For security reasons, this was land that couldn’t be given back.

Settlement in all these areas had early government support. Not so the settlements in Samaria, the northern West Bank. With large Arab populations in places such as Ramallah, Nablus, and Tulkarm, the political leadership viewed the area as a bargaining chip that might draw Jordan into signing a peace treaty.

But, beginning in the early 1970s, prospective Israeli settlers employed techniques used by the Zionist pioneers of the 1920s to 1940s. They first established “facts on the ground.” then got official permission for their upstart communities after the fact.

The earliest efforts were thwarted by the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. But, aided by the likes of Ariel Sharon and then-defence minister Shimon Peres, they finally persuaded Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to let them stay.

And the rest is history – a total of some 121 settlements and about 100 outposts in the West Bank.

Working in military intelligence in the early 1970s. Dubi Tal was charged with trying to detect settlers trying to set up camps in Samaria.

“I didn’t like working against people who were trying to develop the Jewish state,” Mr. Tal says. “So I resigned my commission and joined them.”

Until recently the elected head of the settlements of the Jordan Valley, Mr. Tal has overseen the development of enormous amounts of farm land with relatively few people (6,000).

He says he sees the Valley not just as a defensive bulwark against Arab states to the east, but as an integral part of the nation: “All of it is needed for Israel’s security.”

The yeshiva – Orthodox Jewish college – in Mr. Tal’s settlement of Shadmot Mehola is part of the increasingly popular hesder group, yeshivas that provide religious education to conscripts who choose to mix the military with religion.

“We instill the motivation for soldiers to want to defend all of Eretz Israel,” said Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, using the term for the whole land of Biblical Israel.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, rejected the Eretz Israel mantra in 1948, saying he preferred the whole people (in a smaller territory) to the whole land (with its many Arab inhabitants).

In 1967, only one yeshiva, that of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, was preaching the whole-land concept. Today, most yeshivas preach it, hesder or not.

None do so with more conviction than the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar. Founded in the Palestinian city of Nablus (in Hebrew, Shechem) at what is believed to be the tomb of the Biblical Joseph, the yeshiva was forced to retreat to nearby Yitzhar in 2001 during the second Palestinian uprising (intifada).

The school’s head rabbi, Yitzchak Ginzburgh, is not only an advocate of Israeli sovereignty over all of Eretz Israel. He also calls for the reinstatement of a Jewish monarchy to rule Israel. He argues that Arabs have no place there and praised Baruch Goldstein in 1994 for his attack on Muslims at prayer in Hebron in which 29 people were killed.

One of Rabbi Ginzburgh’s followers, Yitzhak Shapira, a senior rabbi at Od Yosef Hai, once advocated the expulsion or killing of all Palestinian males over the age of 13. He has been arrested for instigating the desecration of a nearby mosque and is widely suspected of encouraging the frequent attacks on nearby Palestinian homes and orchards.

(The director of the yeshiva declined repeated Globe and Mail requests for an interview.)

Last month, the commander of Israel’s forces in the West Bank called for the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva to be closed. General Avi Mizrahi said that several of the yeshiva leaders hold views that are not “consistent with democracy” and incite “Jewish terror” such as the attacks on nearby Arab towns and villages.

Avraham Binyamin, a spokesman for the settlement of Yitzhar, says Gen. Mizrahi, an army commander, had no business making such remarks. Accusations of inciting terrorism are “nonsense,” says Mr. Binyamin. “Terrorism is something that has to be proved – judged in a court of law – and no one has done anything like that with regard to the yeshiva.”

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