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Jewish settler Judy Simon holds a prayer book as she stands on the outskirts of the Jewish Settlement of Bet El located in the occupied West Bank. (Heidi Levine/The Globe and Mail)
Jewish settler Judy Simon holds a prayer book as she stands on the outskirts of the Jewish Settlement of Bet El located in the occupied West Bank. (Heidi Levine/The Globe and Mail)

Settlers of Beit El show the obstacles to Middle East peace Add to ...

When I arrive, 15-year-old Orya Lerner sits on the floor in the kitchen surrounded by pots and pans. She is scrubbing the cupboards in preparation for Passover – the holiday that marks the Jews’ freedom from slavery and their long journey towards a homeland.

Passover, which starts Monday evening, is a particularly big deal around here: Orya lives in Beit El, an Israeli settlement in the Palestinian West Bank, just a half-hour drive from Jerusalem, that has been occupied by ardent Jewish nationalists since 1977.

Like many of Israel’s 300,000 West Bank settlers (there are another 200,000 settlers in occupied suburbs of Jerusalem), Orya’s parents came here from elsewhere: her mother, Sherri, grew up in Toronto, her father, Tuvia, in Moscow. But she is part of a growing – and explosive – generation that was born on this land and is determined to stay at all costs.

The stakes are clear. Beit El is located next door to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. The only thing separating the Lerners from a Palestinian farm 50 metres away is an electrified fence. And they can hear the muezzin’s call to prayer five times every day from a nearby mosque. If there is a peace accord establishing a Palestinian state, these settlers will be on the wrong side of territorial lines. They will lose their homes.

A majority of mainstream Israelis would feel little remorse over that loss – they see these and other settlers as a financial burden and an impediment to peace with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world. The international community views them with contempt; as violators of international law. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that plans for new settlement homes in east Jerusalem made recent peace talks go “poof.”

But settlers see themselves as the frontline in the battle to safeguard the land given to them by God. And they wield increasing political power in Israel – the majority in the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are watching out for settlers’ interests.

I’ve been to settlements like Beit El several times in the past three decades. In the early days, they were viewed as irritants. Later, as settlers launched raids on Palestinian villages and cut or burned down olive trees, as incendiary political elements. Now, as settlers wield political clout, the very future of Israel, and the region, will be shaped by families like the Lerners and their stake in this land.

A winding, five-kilometre drive over the bare, rocky hills of Samaria brings me to the gates of Beit El, where a guard sees my yellow Israeli licence plates and no suspicious (read: Arab) person in the car and waves me in.

The settlement is situated beside a large army camp that has served as protection for the past 37 years. But once inside, the look here is more suburban: well-paved roads lined with white-stucco homes with red-tiled roofs – the trademark of every mature Israeli settlement I’ve seen – and nondescript three- and four-storey office buildings, grocery stores, a medical clinic and schools.

Indeed, one the first things you notice about this community of 6,000 is the large number of schools. Two-thirds of Beit El are kids – about six in an average family.

That leaves few people here with much disposable income. Most parents are in low-paying white-collar jobs – teachers, social workers and bureaucrats – many in Jerusalem. Work on site is restricted to a small winery and some metal and wood workshops, as well as a group that makes tefillin, scripture from the Torah housed in a black box and worn strapped to the body by observant Jews.

Beit El is not an ultra-Orthodox religious community. But it is observant. It has two large synagogues and seven schools of varying religious degrees. And at least part of the draw for settlers – a mix of Europeans, North Americans, Peruvians, Ethiopians and even several dozen Bnei Menashe (Indians from the northeast believed to be descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel) – is the Biblical tie to this land.

“This is where Jacob lay down one night and dreamed of a ladder to heaven,” says Judy Simon, who moved to Beit El from Chicago 14 years ago.

Ms. Simon is the mother of, yes, six children and a former teacher. But these days she works as a tourism organizer: Jewish and Christian groups come here to show their support for settlements, and to see the place Jacob, grandson of Abraham, son of Isaac, and future father to Joseph of the many-coloured coat, called home.

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