A Walk on the Wild Side: Visiting Israel’s West Bank Settlements Eli and Shilo

Categories: Israel
 By Judith Gelman

Eli and Shilo, settlements deep in the West Bank, aren’t places progressive Zionists often visit. However, last June, a dozen Ameinu, Habonim Dror, and Hashomer Hatzair delegates toured these communities as guests of the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which filled two armored buses with 100 World Zionist Congress delegates from across the political spectrum.

Shilo, a 200-household settlement, sits adjacent to biblical Shilo. Eli, the neighboring settlement of 3000 residents, is named after ancient Shilo’s famous priest. These settlements hug hilltops on a ridge rising above valleys filled with Palestinian villages. They are part of a necklace of settlements disrupting the contiguity of the Palestinian Authority; Shilo and Eli divide Nablus and its environs from Ramallah and its surrounding communities. These settlements would be slated for evacuation under any conceivable peace plan.

Relationships with Palestinian Neighbors

Although the settlements overlook picturesque Arab villages only a couple kilometers away, our speakers reported that for many years the settlers have had absolutely no interpersonal relationships or regular interactions with their Palestinian neighbors. No Palestinians work in these settlements—not as builders, janitors, housekeepers or gardeners and certainly not in professional positions.

The desire for separation is evidently mutual. Settlers fear bringing Palestinians into their midst, lest a worker turn out to be a terrorist. On the other hand, we heard that PA police arrested and beat one of the last Palestinians working in Shilo, telling him employment there was off-limits because it helped the settlers.

The dangers of living in these communities are not just theoretical. Since the beginning of the intifada in the Fall of 2000, seven members of the Shilo community have been murdered in five separate attacks. More were injured. These attacks occurred on the roads around Shilo and Eli, in the open areas between the settlements and the surrounding Palestinian villages, and during an incursion into Shilo itself. At the synagogue in Shilo, we were given brochures telling the story of each attack and requesting funds to memorialize the victims.

Our speakers did not mention the 2005 murder of four local Palestinian villagers by a Shilo resident.

In Eli, no one mentioned losses from that community but a quick check of the internet reveals that several Eli residents died in terror attacks during the recent intifada. Most of these deaths occurred on the roads leading to the settlement. Guides did emphasize that every service children need from daycare to dentistry is available right in the community. We also learned that while many men travel to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv for work, most mothers take jobs within the settlement so children have one parent nearby. Even before the recent kidnapping and murder of Eliahu Asheri, a student from another settlement, traveling to and from the community was considered risky. Most settlers have adapted their vehicles to decrease their vulnerability to rocks and bullets. Many keep weapons with them when they drive.

For the past several years, Israeli peace and human rights groups have come to nearby Sawiye to protect Palestinian farmers from settler harassment during harvest season. . There are numerous allegations on the internet that settlers from Eli have burned the crops in fields cultivated by local Palestinians and harassed local Palestinian children on their way to school. Eli residents also allegedly vandalized Palestinian schools several times since 2001 in reprisal for terrorist attacks in the area

A tour participant asked one speaker, “Who owns the surrounding fields?”

He answered “We do.”

By “we”, he meant the Jewish people, who tilled the land in biblical times. To him, this historical connection to the land constitutes the Jewish people’s permanent, inalienable deed from God. Today, settlers work a few fields, but most are cultivated by Palestinians. Still, some settlers see the Palestinians as nothing more than squatters and feel morally justified in uprooting Palestinian orchards and taking over land that has been under Palestinian cultivation for generations.

The Palestinians see the Israeli settlers as occupiers and colonialists. Many dispute the Jewish people’s historical connections to the area.

Investment and Support of Settlements

Everything we saw in Eli and Shilo appeared new, clean and well-kept. National lottery funds built Eli’s new sports facilities, with tennis courts, green playing fields, weight rooms and swimming pools. The Ministry of Education supports the sparkling new schools. Excellent roads serve these communities, while bypassing the neighboring Palestinian villages.

One speaker made a point of telling us that the peripheries of these settlements are patrolled night and day by the settlements’ own armed security personnel, not the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). However, life in these settlements would of course be impossible without the IDF to guard roads, man checkpoints and corral the Palestinians in their own enclaves.

The financial support the settlements have received and continue to receive from public and quasi-public entities is enormous. As an organization, Ameinu can take pride that the World Labor Zionist Movement with which we are affiliated is in the forefront of the drive to stop this flood of public investment into the territories. WLZM and Israel’s Labor party are spearheading the drive to redirect this money for development of the long-neglected Negev and Galilee. At the World Zionist Congress, our progressive Zionist bloc fended off attempts by Likud to gut resolutions instructing JNF and the Jewish Agency to focus on the undeveloped areas within the Green Line.

Settlement Expansion

As our buses entered Eli, we stopped to pick up English-speaking settlers to show us around the community. The San Francisco-born young mother who served as the guide on my bus proudly pointed out that neither Eli nor Shilo has a security fence. “A fence would show the Arabs that we are afraid,” our guide told us. A fence would also demark the boundaries of the community and thus inhibit its growth.

Our guide took my bus on a detour to her “neighborhood”, a post-2001 outpost built in violation of the Road Map. Like many other “neighborhoods” on the outskirts of Eli and Shilo, this outpost occupies a small hill on the same ridge as the larger settlements. Unlike outposts in some parts of the West Bank where radical “Hilltop Youth” camp out in a caravan or two, those surrounding Eli and Shilo are inhabited by families living in red-roofed stucco homes, visually indistinguishable from houses within the authorized settlement boundaries.

Our guide bragged that she and her neighbors all moved into their partially constructed houses one afternoon, long before they had water or electricity. They did so in order to circumvent an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that specifically barred future occupation of any structures not occupied by the day of the decision. Now this neighborhood and others like it are fully integrated into the Eli community, with all utilities and complete municipal services. Paved roads connect them to the main community.

Shalom Achshav’s Settlement Watch classifies these neighborhoods as illegal outposts; the settlers claim they constitute legal expansion to accommodate the settlement’s natural growth.

Housing Prices

Community life in Eli and Shilo seems idyllic in many ways, but the tension over the future of these settlements lies just below the surface. Our guide told us that since PM Olmert announced his plan to evacuate far-flung West Bank settlements such as these, she does not watch the news on TV or listen to it on the radio. Still, she told us that she cannot entirely escape this cloud on her horizon: Talk in the local grocery store and among mothers at the kindergarten focuses on little else. Yet, even with this cloud of impermanence hanging over the community, new residents keep coming. One powerful magnet is the housing.

Having met earlier in the week with affordable housing activists from Ameinu’s partner Yedid, Ameinu delegates understood how unbelievably inexpensive these beautiful homes are by Israeli standards. In Eli, $60,000 buys a good sized 600 sq. meter home; $100,000 buys a much larger 1000 sq meter home. By contrast, an 80 sq meter condo in Tel Aviv costs about $240,000 (30 times more per sq. meter); in Tiberius, $1,000,000 buys a 550 sq meter house (18 times more per sq. meter); housing in Beit Shemesh costs 16-22 times more per sq. meter. In all of these locations, McMansion-sized 1000 sq meters homes (nearly 10,000 sq ft of interior space, usually with 6-8 bedrooms) are highly unusual. For large families, the housing in Eli and Shilo is unbeatable.

Settlements like these contain the least expensive housing anywhere in Israel (if you consider this area Israel.) And despite the many issues progressive Zionists have with these communities, we must admit that these are not slums. The population is solidly middle-class; the schools are good; a regional college is nearby; immediate neighbors share values, making these cohesive communities. Plus, these settlements are convenient to employment in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Eli and Shilo may be slated for evacuation under any conceivable peace plan, but many Israelis believe that day will probably never come. If it does, those who live in these communities and who are considering moving here expect full economic compensation.

New Immigrants

Eli has many services for new olim (immigrants), secular and religious. In addition to ulpanim (language schools), Eli employs counselors to facilitate adults’ integration into Israeli society and has special counselors in its schools for immigrant children. Given these supports, it is not surprising that even during the intifada 60 French olim moved to Eli every year

A relatively new French oleh (immigrant) told us how he ended up in Eli. His garin (immigration group) visited numerous communities inside and outside the Green Line before deciding where to settle. They specifically considered Beit Shemesh, a community inside the Green Line near Jerusalem. The group picked Eli over Beit Shemesh because Eli’s infrastructure included more support for new immigrants and because there were fewer bureaucratic impediments to group settlement.

When asked what would happen if the government asked them to leave this settlement, our speaker told us that he and the rest of his garin would leave peacefully but that he hoped that the group could stay together. He made it clear that they came to Eli because the community was unusually supportive and housing was so inexpensive, not to make a political statement.

In fact, within two years of arriving, about half of the French olim move elsewhere in Israel anyway. Another speaker told us that Eli is very proud that 90% of the olim it acculturates stay in Israel, whereas about 50% of French olim acculturated elsewhere return to France. This speaker, who works with the new olim, saw this statistic as a positive testament to the quality of the new immigrant services available in Eli.

Unlike Eli, Shilo is an exclusively religious community. The streets are closed to traffic on Shabbat. The municipal swimming pool has separate hours for men and women. This village of 400 adults boasts five synagogues. Not only were the residents we met in Shilo more religious than those in Eli, the speakers we heard there professed more ideological attachment to living over the Green Line because this was the center of life for the Israelites 2000-3000 years ago. The recent olim who settle in Shilo tend to be modern Orthodox from the US and Latin America.

While Eli is growing, Shilo’s population has been stable since the 1990’s. As residents move away, newcomers (olim and native-born Israelis) rent or purchase their homes. The outposts on the edge of Shilo are continuing to grow but, unlike Eli, Shilo does not count the surrounding outposts in its community population figures.

Conflict within Religious Zionism

Eli is known for its hesder yeshiva, one of 28 institutions that trains national religious youth for careers in the military while allowing them to continue their Talmudic studies. Since its inception, the hesder yeshiva program has increased the number of religious officers in the IDF many fold. Currently, a majority of IDF officers come from the national religious camp. The religious Zionist movement points with pride to its level of military service and offers it as proof that they are Israel’s fervent defenders.

Last year, during the Disengagement, controversy erupted when 96 religiously observant soldiers, mostly from the hesder yeshiva system, refused orders to participate in the evacuation of the settlements. In addition, the head of one yeshiva spoke out vehemently against Disengagement and refused to intervene when his students allegedly took an active role in attempts to thwart the evacuation of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip. Since Disengagement, the hesder yeshiva system has been under increased scrutiny and pressure from all sides. One speaker, a teacher in the Eli yeshiva, alluded to the difficulties this system now faces in recruiting religious youth to military careers.

The main guide on my bus went into this issue in more depth. A religious IDF officer himself, our guide told us that in the post-Disengagement era, many national religious youth are now considering whether to avoid military service all together, a path unthinkable in the past. He reported that the most radical elements of the settlers’ movement are calling on these young men to train instead in an unauthorized militia they call “The Jewish Army.” Despite his own assessment of Disengagement as a tactical mistake because “Israel gave everything and got nothing”, this young officer emphasized that all Israelis must honor the decisions of their democratically elected leaders.

The settlers in communities like Eli and Shilo are at the center of this ideological conflict. Many residents are graduates of the hesder yeshiva system and have served the State of Israel loyally in the IDF. Many also believe passionately in the religious Zionist ideology of reclaiming “Judea and Samaria” for the Jewish people. Now their loyalty to the State of Israel versus their fidelity to religious Zionism is being tested by the government’s talk of withdrawal from this land. An increasing number of these settlers talk openly about the limits of their commitment to democracy and to the State of Israel.

We heard this rejection of the authority of the State of Israel from one of our speakers. Although most of the speakers we heard were moderate in their presentation, one of the guides in Shilo forthrightly told us that he will never evacuate his home, no matter what the Israeli government decided. He blamed the settlers on Gush Katif—by not fighting sufficiently against the Disengagement, they made further evacuations a viable possibility. We did not get an opportunity to ask him exactly to what lengths he would go to stay in Shilo, but my impression was that he is prepared, in theory, for a very violent confrontation with the IDF.

Conclusion

It is important that progressive Zionists be familiar with the positive aspects of life in places as Eli and Shilo in order to understand why people choose to live in such communities. In addition to the undeniable religious significance of this area, there are substantial economic incentives to residing in these cohesive and relatively convenient communities.

While some residents of Eli and Shilo are motivated by their fervent devotion to reestablishing Jewish life in the area where the Tabernacle stood for 369 years after the Jews entered Canaan, most of the speakers we heard expressed quite moderate views. Even if the moderates represent the vast majority of the residents, this does not mean evacuating these settlements would be easy. It is not just the inertia and attachment to home and community that make leaving objectionable to residents of Eli and Shilo. .These settlers, like those in Gush Katif, would also be losing their highly subsidized lifestyle in a beautiful, rural location, a situation difficult to replicate inside the Green Line. The dangers and inconvenience of the intifada have not been enough to induce them to move away. In fact, more keep moving in. As in Gush Katif, moderate settlers would strongly oppose any decision by Israel to abandon their communities. The more extreme elements are already hinting at the use of violence against any government that tries to dislodge them.

Originally published in the Jewish Frontier, Winter 2007 issue                     

About Judith Gelman, Vice President and Chair of the Executive Committee

Judith Gelman is the Chair of Ameinu’s Executive Committee and serves as the Chair of the Fundraising and Membership Committee. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Habonim Dror Foundation and on the Camp Committee for Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, where her three children represent the fourth generation of her family associated with the camp. Prior to attending Oberlin College and MIT, Judith participated in the Habonim’s 23rd Workshop at Maayan Baruch. In addition to her work with Ameinu and Habonim Dror, Judith sits on the International Council of the New Israel Fund and on the NIF DC Local Council. Judy also serves on the Montgomery County, MD Steering Committee for J Street and on the board of a local private high school. She is a former President of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD. She has previously worked for the Council of Economic Advisers and the Federal Trade Commission, and is currently employed at Salop Economics in Washington, DC.
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