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Settlers of Beit El show the obstacles to Middle East peace

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

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.

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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.

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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.

We stand atop the highest hill in the settlement – with a view to Jerusalem to the south, the Mediterranean to the west, Syria to the north and the mountains of Jordan to the east – as she explains why this particular story is so important to settlers.

The scripture, Book of Genesis, Chapter 28, does not only describe Jacob's ladder. It says that God told Jacob in his dream that He was giving the land on which he lay to him and his descendants. And that no matter how far abroad Jews would be spread He would bring them "back to this land."

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"Jacob was so moved by what he saw," says Ms. Simon, "that he called this place the House of God, or Beit El, in Hebrew."

"That's the part that hooked me. Our coming here is part of the fulfillment of God's promise."

'My life changed forever'

The Lerners, my hosts for three days in Beit El, were also drawn by a sense of destiny.

Tuvia Lerner moved to Israel at age 12. It was the 1960s and his family wanted to escape the restrictions on Jewish life in the Soviet Union.

Although his father was a "simple Jew," he says, his mother's father taught in the yeshiva. So Mr. Lerner was enrolled the year he arrived in Israel in a religious summer camp. That's where he read the Bible for the first time.

"I realized it was not the stupid book they told us it was in the Soviet Union," he says, "and my life changed forever."

Sherri Lerner had visited Israel as a teenager in the late 1970s, then followed a sister who made "aliya" – a term that refers to diaspora Jews making their way "up" or "ascending" to Israel – in the early 80s.

"My uncle was Tuvia's teacher in the yeshiva," she says. "He set us up."

The couple married and first settled in Pisgat Ze'ev, one of those suburbs of Jerusalem. But they elected to move out to Beit El – where he says they always planned to live – in 1989 to help ensure that the then-12-year-old settlement was not abandoned.

"The first intifada was frightening a lot of people," Mr. Lerner says, referring to the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, "and some were leaving Beit El."

The Lerners bought land for a house there – a bargain compared to other places in Israel, but at 14,000 shekels or about $4,500, a sacrifice for them. "I had to sell my car to pay the builders the last of the money I owed them," says Tuvia.

For almost 25 years the family has lived in that same white-stucco, four-bedroom bungalow, large by Israeli standards but crammed by Canadian, raising their eight children. There's also a lower-level flat for Mr. Lerner's mother, and a second floor, still unfinished, that the Lerners hope will house one or more of their grown-up children and their families.

The higher roof supports large photovoltaic panels, too, which provide power to eight homes on the street and supplemental income to the Lerners.

For several years, even as she continued to bear her last four children, Ms. Lerner operated a day-care centre in their home – another money-maker, but one can only imagine the chaos in this limited space.

Ms. Lerner now earns a living as Beit El's cultural organizer, bringing speakers and performers, mostly religious, to the community. Mr. Lerner was educated as a physicist but, when he moved to Beit El, he became head of Russian news on Arutz Sheva, a radio-station and website that prides itself in being the voice of the settlement movement throughout the West Bank; based in Beit El, the operation broadcasts and posts in Hebrew, Russian and English.

After completing a legal program at college, Mr. Lerner also represents those seeking divorce in religious court in Jerusalem.

Two-state stalling

Mr. Lerner has thought a lot about just what kind of arrangement would work best for both Jews and Arabs here and has concluded that a two-state solution will never work.

"If it could work it would have worked by now," he says. "They've talked about it for years."

His vision is of a single state for both peoples – but with certain limits on democracy. He imagines a democratic Jewish state in which loyal Palestinians would be allowed to stay with full economic and legal rights.

"But not political rights," he says.

Perhaps they would have their own parliament, he suggests, but it wouldn't oversee ministries such as defence or foreign affairs. When I tell him this sounds a lot like the old apartheid system in South Africa, he recoils.

"Absolutely not," he insists. "In South Africa, a small number of whites ruled over a majority of blacks and treated them like slaves."

"Here, the Arabs would have full economic rights."

This is a long way from what Palestinians want – an independent state – and would make a lot of Israelis uneasy – they pride themselves on the country's fully democratic values. But Mr. Lerner may be right about one thing: The two-state solution is looking increasingly unlikely.

The Israeli government, dominated by members who are supportive of the settlements, seems content to let the peace process fester while continuing to build settlements throughout the West Bank.

Two new kindergartens were opened while we I visited Beit El, and the Minister of the Interior, Gideon Sa'ar, was there for the occasion. "We will keep building in Beit El," he assured the crowd of 200 parents. "Beit El will never be removed from the map."

Many here recall a court decision two years ago that forced the settlement to tear down five small apartment buildings that housed 30 families. The buildings, part of a new neighbourhood in Beit El called Ulpana, had been erected on private Palestinian land.

That kind of thing had happened before with few consequences, but this time the court insisted on their removal and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu agreed.

Still, settlers were moved to temporary caravans and promised that, in view of the 30 homes that were destroyed, 10 times as many homes would be added to the community.

The Lerners' daughter Yael, 27, and her husband live in a similar small, three-room caravan. She is an optometrist, working limited hours at a nearby settler shopping centre. Her husband is studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The couple has two young children – Miriam, 2½, and Hadas, 1½ – with another due in May.

"I want to have as many children as possible," says Yael – definitely more than the eight her parents had.

After three years in the caravan, they are looking forward to a larger, real home, but one here in the settlement.

"My family is here," she says, adding that "this is a full-service community."

Violence breeds violence

It may have all the needed services, but Beit El has also been the locus of some incredible periods of violence.

Young people now in their late teens and early 20s grew up here in the middle of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising from 2000 to 2005 that was marked by suicide bombings and armed attacks.

"You felt you were taking your life in your hands every time you left the community," says Ms. Lerner. There were frequent rock-throwing incidents, and several occasions when guns were fired at their vehicles.

"We're still using the armoured buses that were built during that time," she says. "The Army insists on it. But they're always breaking down and it takes forever to get anywhere."

The Lerners play down the frequent Friday protests that still go on, in which neighbouring Palestinian youths burn tires and heap verbal abuse upon the settlers. "The black smoke is the worst part," Ms. Lerner says. (The prevailing wind usually carries it toward their home.)

Of greater concern: On March 10, a Palestinian teenager from a local village was killed when soldiers opened fire on the boy and his companion, who reportedly had been throwing rocks at vehicles on Highway 60, near Beit El. The army is investigating the matter, as soldiers are not supposed to fire unless their lives are in danger.

"The peace process is the worst thing to happen to the Arabs," Mr. Lerner concludes. "Before the Oslo Agreement we all got along. We used to drive through Ramallah to get to Jerusalem… no problem."

Mr. Lerner is referring to the 1993 accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that created the Palestinian Authority. But he glosses over the Palestinian uprising of the late 1980s, one that made it clear that, if there were no problems for settlers like Mr. Lerner, there were serious problems as far as Palestinians were concerned – and that they were willing to take action.

"It was after the PA was created that the trouble began," Mr. Lerner insists, "and we ended up with the worst terrorism in our history."

Perhaps as a result of that terrorism, Beit El's young people grew up more radicalized than their pioneering parents and grandparents. Many are moving out of mainstream settlements and into so-called "outposts," several around Beit El, that even the Israeli authorities acknowledge are illegal but do little to remove.

The term "hilltop youth" has been coined to describe these settlers, and the violence and vandalism many carry out against nearby Palestinian communities – breaking windows, torching mosques and painting graffiti in what they say are "price-tag" operations, the price Palestinians will pay for any action by the authorities against settlements, such as removing a new outpost or arresting hilltop youth.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, chief rabbi of Beit El and one of the most influential rabbis in the settlement movement, condemns such behaviour. "It gives our movement a bad name," he says.

But hilltop activities are condoned by many mainstream settlers.

Sarah Feld, from New Jersey, came to Beit El 10 years ago. Her husband left because he wasn't up to the challenge of living here, Ms. Feld says, but she is enormously proud that her five children all live in various settlements – three in outposts.

Some of the Lerners' children, too, are joining outposts, which their mother describes as "new places to conquer."

Noam, 18, is studying in a yeshiva in Itamar, a settlement closely associated with the hilltop youth. The Lerner's eldest son, Yehuda, 28, lives in Yitzhar, perhaps the most militant of all settlements, with his wife and three children.

Just this week, settlers in Yitzhar slashed the tires on the car of a senior Israeli Defence Force officer as he paid a courtesy call to the leaders of the community. The Minister of Defence labeled it an act of terrorism.

But little is likely to change in Yitzhar, where frequent acts of violence against the IDF and neighbouring Palestinian farms has been given a religious sheen as the settlement's influential rabbis lead a call for a theocratic Jewish state.

Leaving, for now

The Lerners' third child, born shortly after they moved to Beit El, is named Yaacov, or Jacob, for the man who named this place thousands of years ago. Ironically, of all their children, he is the family's wayward sheep.

He's frequently seen without his skull cap and has decided to leave Beit El and the whole settlement enterprise.

Yaacov was a pre-teen during the second intifada – a most impressionable age. Later, he was frequently in trouble with the Israeli security forces that police the settlements, protesting whenever they tried to remove an outpost. And he took a leading role in the defence of Amona, an illegal settlement that was ordered demolished by Ariel Sharon's government. Thousands of security forces laid into hundreds of protesters.

"I ended up in the hospital," Yaacov says, showing me a large scar just below his hairline. "It was like war."

"I did some crazy things back then."

His father says he was "very proud" of his son for the fight he put up at Amona.

Mr. Lerner is critical of Israeli settlers in the Gaza Strip who chose to leave their homes without much protest when ordered out by the Israeli government in 2005. "They put us all in jeopardy," he says, referring to the settlements of Samaria that would be the next targets for withdrawal.

Fortunately, he says, "their children … and young people like Yaacov … learned a lesson." What they did at Amona, he says, was show the government that "we'll never again go without a fight."

Yaacov is surprised to hear that his father is so proud of him, but that's not going to make him change his mind about leaving. "It's not for ideological reasons," he says, though he admits he's uncomfortable with settlements such as Yitzhar that attack the IDF. "It's about lifestyle."

Yaacov served four years in an IDF elite anti-terrorist unit operating on the Lebanese border in the North of Israel. He liked the job so much, dealing mostly with Hezbollah in Lebanon, that he stayed on an extra year and fell in love with the rugged border area.

Now, he wants to live there after he finishes his education.

Yaacov never completed high school and did terribly in the years he was there. So the family celebrated last week when he excelled in an entrance exam to an engineering college in Tiberias.

And with all the political support it gets, Beit El isn't going anywhere, says Yaacov.

"Peace talks will never amount to anything," he says, "and me being here won't make any difference."

Still, this is home. And he will never turn his back on the settlement. Should the day come when the people here are being forcibly removed, he says, "I'll be back to join the fight."

"It's stupid to force people out of their homes."

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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