Settlers set up West Bank tourism ventures
For the people behind the ventures, getting guests to love the land is more important than earning profits, says Karni Eldad.
"Just as the Golan Heights became part of the Israeli consensus because people came and vacationed and saw that it was good, it was lovely, it was fun, and it would be a shame to give it to the Arabs, the same thing could happen in Samaria," says Doron Nir Zvi, who lives in the unauthorized outpost of Yad Yair, in northern Samaria. He and his family run a restaurant and rent out a luxury vacation cabin (called a "zimmer" in Israel) at the outpost, and even have a swimming pool. "I don't talk about the land of our forefathers and ideology. I direct myself toward it. Toward love. I want people to come here, to love the views and to become unwilling to give them up," he says.
Nir Zvi, a lawyer, was raised in Petah Tikva, and was an officer in the Golani Brigade. In Yad Yair, he and his wife, Tamar, are realizing their dream of bringing tourists to Samaria. The reason for this is without a doubt ideological, since their livelihood comes from Doron's position as attorney for the Land Redemption Fund, a right-wing organization that specializes in acquiring and registering land in the West Bank.
Nir Zvi's family invested $350,000 in the place, a substantial sum considering the risk involved in operating a tourism business in such an area. But Nir Zvi says he did so without apprehension. "I would have no problem renting out the zimmer tomorrow as a residence. I'm not afraid. But it's important to me and Tamar for there to be an enterprise like this, so that people can come and see the beauty of Samaria, 20 minutes from the Yarkon interchange [outside of Tel Aviv]."
From the windows in the cabin one can see the Palestinian villages on the adjacent hill, as well as the Almagor stream, a branch of the Kanah River, the Biblical boundary between the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
The amenities available in zimmers in the West Bank are a little different from the norm. The one operated by Maanit and Moshe Rabinowitz, for example, at the outpost of Kida, near Shilo, has a Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh, rather than the customary hot tub. And in addition to the home theater system it boasts a fully equipped kosher kitchen. Guests can use the local synagogue as well as the swimming pool, with separate hours for women and men.
Maanit is a glass artist, building contractor, social worker and mother of four. On top of that, the vacation cabins must be maintained.
The Rabinowitzes decided to go into the business a few years ago, after a zimmer vacation of their own. "The landscape in our community is so beautiful, maybe it will help people to cross the 'line'; to overcome their fear," Maanit says. "The more people come and get to know [the place], the better it will be."
"Obviously there were concerns when we built the cabins, so we built for ones that can be transported. If it works out, great, and if not then we can sell them," Maanit says. When she says, "we built," she means it literally. She and her husband run a light construction business. Moshe supervises the work, and Maanit runs things from the office. "When people hear that I'm a contractor, they raise an eyebrow. They try to pigeonhole me as a secretary or the like. Working together [with my husband] is a blessing, praise God," she says.
"I would be lying if I said there were no tough moments," Maanit admits. "This is a new job, and it takes a little time to get accustomed. I think we're in a better place now, more balanced." The zimmers attract observant Jews from throughout Israel, mainly by word of mouth. "We don't feel it would be effective to advertise in Petah Tikva, for example. Why would people come to a place that sounds like it's at the back of beyond? So we advertised in our local paper, and people tell friends who they know will not be afraid to come," she says.
Kida, in the Shilo-Eli settlement bloc, is 800 meters above sea level and boasts open vistas and clear mountain air. It was established in 2003, on the site of a vacated military base. About 30 families live there now, pursuing a rural, religiously observant, community lifestyle. When I asked whether it was dangerous to come, Maanit replied that "dangerous is a matter of perspective."
Boaz Ido founded Genesis Land 16 years ago. It is located off the Allon Road, near Ma'aleh Adumim. When he first came to the site, he watched as the Biblical story of Abraham's and Lot's shepherds came to life in his mind's eye. He looked again, and saw the Israelites crossing the Jordan River and settling in the Jordan Basin. Then he returned home, to the settlement of Allon, but the visions persisted.
Eventually, Ido returned and created a "Hebrew hospitality" facility, with tents and camels, where guests dress in Biblical costumes and are greeted by actors who wash their feet and act out the story of the shepherds.
"Genesis Land gets groups of Jews, Christians and even Muslims. We have a single father," Ido says. During our visit we saw a group of Bedouin children that had come all the way from Be'er Sheva in order to sleep in a tent and ride camels. Visitors can participate in team-building workshops, in which they carry out tasks such as erecting a Bible-era tent, herding sheep and goats, or drawing water from a well.
Three years ago, Ido built the guest accommodations called Abraham's Tent, which has a hot tub with a view but neither television nor stereo. "What this place has going for it is the quiet and the breathtaking landscape. Foreign sights and sounds would only be a disturbance," Ido says.
In 2009 Genesis Land drew 50,000 visitors from around the world. Overnight stays are very popular, with places booked six months in advance. Ido's dream might have ended in economic disaster, but his trepidation had nothing to do with being over the Green Line. He knew that everyone in the country who is trying to support themselves from tourism has fears. In his case, the investment paid off.