Last week I was invited to visit the Hayovel neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Eli (erected on the 50th anniversary of Israel's establishment). This neighborhood includes several structures that were likely built on Palestinian land and are slated for demolition, pending a court ruling.
I was treated to a pleasant breakfast and a breathtaking view of the Shilo region, and more importantly, I had the pleasure of meeting wonderful unique people, what we call "salt of the earth," who are driven by a sense of duty. Israel Defense Forces officers of the past and the present, social activists (within the Green Line), and many more fine people.
Though most of them have never set foot in a settlement, the Israeli left, especially in Tel Aviv, tends to lump all settlers together – all rightist, extreme, ignorant and narrow minded. In Eli, like in many other settlements, the residents are actually very intelligent and well educated. They are enthusiastic Zionists, true, but not the kind who rejoice when a Palestinian olive grove goes up in flames. In a way I felt envious of these people – while I chase my next scoop they are making their dream of populating the land of Israel come true.
According to Jewish tradition, the settlement of Eli is situated across from Shilo – the capital of the Kingdom of Israel where the pre-temple Ark of the Covenant was housed for 369 years. In the valley between Shilo and Eli, again according to local lore, the women of Israel danced and gave to the Jews the holiday of Tu B'Av – the holiday of love.
I personally believe that under any future agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, these people need to evacuate their land and relocate to land within the Green Line. But I feel obligated to say one or two positive words about the ones I met.
I don't meet a lot of settlers. My journalistic beat encompasses Arabs, and when I do come into contact with Jews living in the West Bank, it is usually when they perpetrate violent incidents, especially during the Palestinian olive harvest. Even during my visit to Eli there were several such violent incidents. On the day before my tour of the area, the residents of the neighboring Palestinian village found that hundreds of their olive trees had been poisoned, apparently by settlers. But the people I met in Eli don't support these kinds of actions.
Now the rightists will say that even in writing these things I am displaying Tel Avivian, condescending qualities because it is obvious that not everyone is the same. But, still, it is important to say these things. It is important to understand that it was the State of Israel that sent these people to live where they currently reside, and now it is the same state trying to pressure them and restrict them. Their pain is understandable as the state tries to freeze their vision, but it is also apparent that the settlement enterprise cannot continue if we want to achieve a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
An overview of the region reveals that all the hilltops surrounding Eli are in Jewish hands. Some of them legally owned by Jews, and others illegally claimed. Such is the case in the hilly region surrounding Nablus as well: Yitzhar and its outposts, Itamar and its outposts. The Palestinian aspiration to establish a territorially continuous state seems imaginary, almost infantile, in light of the settlers control over every hilltop surrounding Nablus and Ramallah. Even more imaginary – the discussion surrounding the possibility that Israel will evacuate theses settlements one day. This is an impossible mission, at least for now. We're talking about some 100,000 Jews who will be forced to leave their homes, and that's not to mention the 250,000 Jews living in the settlement blocs that will likely remain under Israeli sovereignty.
The big scandal surrounding the Gaza settlement evacuation, when 9,000 Jews were evacuated, seems like a drop in the ocean when compared to the West Bank. Even if we do achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it is unrealistic to expect the IDF and the police to be able to evacuate such a large number of people. It is especially unrealistic in light of the massive transformation that the IDF is undergoing currently - more and more of its officers are religious Zionists who identify with the right and oppose evacuating settlements.
Will the army be able to complete such a task? I don't have a clear answer. I can be sure, however, that despite my appreciation for the residents of Eli, Shilo and other mainstream settlements, the continuation of construction in these settlements will absolutely prevent the possibility of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
So what is the solution? The one I support remains the two-state solution. I may be overly optimistic, knowing what I know about the changes in the army and on the ground, but regardless, when I listened to the people who hosted my visit in Shilo and its surroundings, the sentence that I kept repeating was that for them, there is no solution.