Israel: the enemy within

EDITOR'S NOTE:

When Israel allowed the settlement freeze to end Sunday, it left an already fragile process teetering on collapse. It also emboldened a militant movement of Jewish settlers to seize the opportunity to begin building again in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had vowed to break off the nascent talks if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed the moratorium on building to pass. But as of late today, Abbas was putting off any decision to end the talks, allowing the United States some time to try to breathe life back into the process.

The key for U.S. special envoy George Mitchell to succeed in getting the parties beyond this first and important impasse will be to convince Netanyahu to stand strong against the far right members of his coalition government and re-impose some form of freeze. 

But that won't be easy. Jewish settlers — and the far right Israeli politicians who represent their movement — are seen as a relentless force of true believers. GlobalPost correspondent Matt McAllester traveled into the chalky hills of the West Bank and spent time among the most militant fringe of this Jewish settler movement.

In this four-part series, which was first published in November 2009, McAllester reports on the young and largely American Jewish militants who are building "outposts," as they are known. In building these encampments, the s0-called "Hilltop Youth" are seen to be violating not just international laws that prohibit settlement building in occupied terrirory but also operating in defiance of Israeli prohibitions on building outside the government-approved settlement plan.    

SHVUT AMI OUTPOST, West Bank — Aaron Gottlieb is 15 years old, speaks in a rapid-fire American accent and is yet to have his first shave. He does not look like much of a threat but he is part of a movement that has many in Israel deeply worried: the Hilltop Youth.

Gottlieb grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and emigrated to Israel with his family when he was 9. Whenever he can get away from his yeshiva in the Israeli town of Petah Tikva, he spends the night in a cave on top of a hill in the West Bank with other teenage boys.

Although without a central organizing body, the Hilltop Youth receive support from several adult settler leaders. But the mainstream settlement movement — essentially, these kids’ parents — have disowned them and their frequently violent tactics. Seizing and occupying yet more hilltops in what they call “outposts” is, in the eyes of many mainstream settler leaders, pointless provocation to a government whose support the settlers need. There are about 100 outposts in the West Bank, according to Peace Now, which monitors settlement activity.

The outpost Gottlieb visits and has helped build is called Shvut Ami. It sits next to Route 60, next to the hardline settlement of Qedumim, one of the first to be established in the West Bank. Israeli police have tried numerous times to remove the teenage settlers, arresting them and destroying their temporary structures on top of the hill, but the kids keep coming back. In four months over the winter, the teenagers used picks and shovels to dig a sizeable cave out of the hillside, giving them a more permanent dwelling — unless the police or army use dynamite to collapse the roof of the cave. The boys live there among dusty blankets and pillows, a gas heater keeping them warm at night, studying the Torah and building a Jewish presence on land they believe was given to the Jews by God.

Other than two friendly dogs and some iron bars, the kids on the hill have few weapons. Gottlieb keeps a small can of pepper spray in the pocket of his cargo pants in case of attack by people he calls his “enemies.”

“The people over there,” he said, pointing to a Palestinian village across a valley to the west. He looked around him, pointing to other Palestinian village. “The people over there. The people over there. The people over there. The people over there.”

Like most settlers, he doesn’t call them Palestinians. The name Palestinian implies, to them, that there ever was or ever will be a country called Palestine. Sometimes they’re “Arabs,” but mostly he calls them “terrorists.” Gottlieb said he was not afraid of them.

“God’s with me,” he said. “We’ve been here forever. This land has been ours forever. This land has been promised for God.”

Gottlieb’s belief in his right to live in the West Bank, in spite of the condemnation of much of the world and the insistence of his own government that he is breaking the law, is total. Like many of the new generation of settlers, he believes we are living in a time when the messiah will return to Jerusalem, when his law will rule the world, and when the Jews will be the rulers under the messiah. “Jews are different,” he said.

I asked if by "different," he meant better?

“Different better,” he said.

The messiah will come sooner, Jews like Gottlieb believe, if most or all of the Jews in the world return to live in Israel. Which, in their minds and in some interpretations of the geography of the Hebrew Bible, stretches from Egypt to part of Iraq.

There is very little of America left in Aaron. He goes back sometimes to visit his grandmother, who lives on Park Avenue, but he dislikes the sinfulness of the United States. Israel is his home. And he’s prepared to give his life for the Land of Israel. “I’m a soldier for what I believe,” he said.

For all his bravado and conviction, Gottlieb is fundamentally a sweet-natured teenager. He insists he would never fight against the Israeli army. He is the gentle face of the Hilltop Youth and the extremist settlers.

But there are others who would seem more ready to fight.

This summer I met 21-year-old Ephraim Khantsis in a kosher, Israeli-owned pizza parlor near his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Like Gottlieb, he was gentle and unimposing. But he was rigid in his views. Later in the year, he told me, he would pack a couple of suitcases, say good-bye to his mother, leave his home in Brooklyn, and move to Israel. On arrival in Jerusalem he would enroll in a yeshiva, or religious school, that is popular with Americans. After a year of study he would make his way north, to a place this young American feels is his true home: the Jewish settlement of Kfar Tapuach, population about 600.

Khantsis, who was in the process of applying for Israeli citizenship, will fit right in. Like the assassinated Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane, the man some in Kfar Tapuach consider their spiritual leader, Khantsis believes that all Arabs and Palestinians should be forcibly removed from territory controlled by Israel, including the West Bank.

“It's the most humane way to solve the situation,” said Khantsis, who this year graduated from Stony Brook University, on Long Island, with a degree in computer science. He acknowledged that he was advocating ethnic cleansing.

While such a view is unlikely to become mainstream in Israel, there's a pledge Khantsis made that might be more troubling to Israeli authorities: If the Israeli military comes to remove him from his new home — and many in Israel believe such an event is likely — he will not leave peacefully.

“I would fight against it with all my strength, and I would leave nothing back to try to stop it," said the slim young man wearing a black yarmulke. He spoke so softly that at times it was hard to hear him. “If they use violence, then we're justified doing the same.”

Would that include using a gun?

“Yes,” he said.

Is he absolutely sure that he would use a weapon against Israeli soldiers?

“That's right. I strongly hope it would never come to that,” he said. But “if they're already shooting us, I'd have no option. I don't think the right thing to do is turn the other cheek."

Read the rest of "Israel's enemy within":

Part 1: A rising militancy from the Jewish settlements

Part 2: A community on the edge

Part 3: Palestinian militants gird for battle

GlobalPost correspondent Matt McAllester has reported on Israel/Palestine since the late 1990s, when he was Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, and more recently as a contributing editor for Details magazine. The field reporting for this series was done over several weeks in the West Bank and Israel earlier this year.