Welcome to Tuscany, Just 10 Minutes East of the Green Line

Settler leaders are engaged in a large public relations effort to sell the northern West Bank as a beautiful and safe tourist destination. They have a lot to show, but also to hide.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

"Ignorance is our worst enemy," Nati Yisraeli told me as we stood on a large wooden veranda in Havat Yair and took in the wonderful view of the Kana River.

Yisraeli is the tourism coordinator of the Samaria Regional Council, and his use of the word "our" refers to Jews who live in settlements in the northern West Bank. His use of the word "ignorance," refers to one thing alone: the lack of knowledge Israelis who live within the Green Line (Israel's pre-1967 borders ) have of what goes on in the territories.

Yisraeli's job is to bring visitors to the area where he lives. He's been doing it for three years.

"Our strategy has changed during this period," he said. "Once we would organize demonstrations. Today it's the exact opposite. We simply want people to come and get to know us; to like us. That's why we've invited you."

"Look," he said, spreading his arms to indicate the view. "This is Tuscany, and it's 10 minutes away from your house in Petah Tikva. Tourist agents get a shock when they come here and see just how close it is to discover an unknown land. For many years, we've been perceived as madmen on a hill. We're not like that - and we don't have horns, either."

Yisraeli's favorite comparison is the Golan Heights. "Why them and not us?" he asked me several times during the long day we spent together. It's clear what he means: Most Israelis see the Golan Heights as a legitimate tourism destination, and the villages there aren't called settlements.

That may not be the case with Samaria, as Yisraeli terms the northern West Bank, but if he is to be believed, that's about to change. A large public relations effort is underway to sell both Israeli citizens and tourists around the world on the idea of Samaria as a beautiful and safe tourist destination.

The stops on this tour were planned in coordination with the local tourism authority and the public relations firm that handles its affairs. Everything was arranged and coordinated in advance with almost military precision - sometimes in coordination with the military itself.

The first stop on the tour was the veranda in Havat Yair - an unauthorized outpost in western Samaria that was established 12 years ago, evacuated and then rebuilt. Its residents claim that it is part of the neighboring settlement of Nofim. But in 2005, attorney Talia Sasson's government-commissioned report on the status of the outposts stated that part of Havat Yair is built on private Palestinian land.

Havat Yair looks like an affluent, middle-class neighborhood, with large houses, red roofs and children's toys scattered in the yards. Everything looks stable, prosperous and perfectly legal.

The spacious veranda is part of Tamari's Shack, a cafe and bed-and-breakfast owned by Doron and Tamar Nir-Zvi, who live next door. The Nir-Zvi family started their business three years ago, and it is the first B&B in Samaria. The views are breathtaking.

Doron Nir-Zvi works as a lawyer, and calls the hospitality business "a hobby that won't support seven children." Later, he says "It's more of a vision - tourism here is pioneering," adding that guests arrive "from the Golan Heights and Ramat Hasharon," a town near Tel Aviv.

He shrugged when asked about the Palestinian neighbors and the security issues. "There are people who are affected by it," he said. "We're not. This is our daily life here."

His wife Tamar added, "I grew up in [the settlement of] Kiryat Arba, so I'm used to it. You may think it's a problematic place, but I say this is my place. I live here and will stay here forever. I'm not doing any harm to anyone by developing tourism here. If I'm not afraid to go see a movie in Tel Aviv at night, then why are you scared to come here?"

When I asked about their Palestinian neighbors, Yisraeli answered, "There aren't any Arabs close by. Western Samaria doesn't have a high Arab population, and Havat Yair is surrounded by Israeli communities."

Tamar Nir-Zvi smiled and said, "This is easy compared to Kiryat Arba. Everything is about awareness, and habit. You should get to know somewhere like Havat Yair before you start talking about the occupied territories and the Palestinians and all that."

The word "you" as a collective pronoun was used repeatedly during my visit. The people I spoke to didn't know anything about me apart from the fact that I write for Haaretz.

The Disneyland model

From Havat Yair we traveled to the city of Ariel to visit the Eshel Hashomron Hotel - the only hotel in the vicinity. Hotel manager Tuvia Gelbard explained that most of the 100-room hotel's guests are Christian pilgrims from Europe. Israelis turn up on weekends.

For the pilgrims, he said, it makes no difference if the place is dangerous or not. They come anyway.

He was very proud of the biblical gardens under development alongside the hotel. "The model is Disneyland, but we're not there yet," he said.

Meanwhile, the hotel lobby features a golden replica of the Holy Ark that the Children of Israel bore through the desert, and the courtyard has an enormous replica of the Tabernacle and a fire-spitting altar.

On the way to Sebastia, we passed through the Palestinian village of al-Punduk and continued via Jatt in the direction of Kedumim. At every junction stood Jewish hitchhikers.

Yair Elmakayes, director of the Midreshet Shomron college, is only 32 years old. He lives in Havat Gilad, an unauthorized outpost that has twice been evacuated, despite stiff physical resistance. We traveled in his jeep to the disused railway station near Sebastia, where in 1975, the Gush Emunim settlement organization established its first settlement in Samaria.

President Shimon Peres - then the minister of defense - approved the settlement near the village of Kadum. The settling of Sebastia is considered a key event in the history of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. The station is deserted, and Elmakayes told me of plans to convert it into a museum documenting Jewish settlement in the area.

Then we continued to the ancient site of Sebastia, and Elmakayes took me on a guided tour, with interesting explanations about the site's history. Two young soldiers with helmets, heavy webbing and weapons accompanied us throughout the tour of the site on foot. This is what the army demands during sensitive periods, Yisraeli explained.

In the middle of the tour, while Elmakayes and I were sitting in the shade of a tree near the large Roman theater, it turned out that the soldiers accompanying us had meanwhile arrested a young Palestinian man, who they say tried to throw stones at them. All this occurred in complete silence, without any shouting or rioting. They held the young man, who showed no sign of resisting his arrest, tied his hands behind his back with plastic restraints, and led him together with us for the rest of the tour.

An elderly Palestinian, the owner of a souvenir stall at the site, told us, "He's crazy, majnoon," then offered us some coins from Herodian times - three for NIS 70.

'I'm not crazy'

We descended a path toward a row of pillars at the entrance to Sebastia. The two soldiers with the bound, arrested Palestinian walked ahead of us.

In the opposite direction, a group of tourists from China approached, most of them bearing colorful parasols. They came with a Palestinian tour guide and needed no military accompaniment. The two convoys stopped briefly to eye each other, then went on their ways. The Palestinian was loaded onto a military jeep, blindfolded.

We traveled to Rachelim, a settlement established in 1991 but recognized only a year ago as an independent settlement, to visit the Tura boutique winery. Vered and Erez Ben Sa'adon set up the winery a decade ago and now produce some 15,000 bottles a year.

Dutch-born Vered opened the conversation without me asking anything. "I'm not some crazy settler and not an extremist," she said. "Your stigma is incorrect and our political viewpoint does not mean we are loony."

Then she took a breath and continued to rapid-fire: "Everything here is done out of love for the Land of Israel and the vision. For everyone who says 'it's a settlement and therefore I won't go there,' there are three who want to meet us, to get to know us, to connect with history."

Throughout the conversation, we sipped fine port wine that Vered is particularly proud of. "It's about time for you to realize that these people are not what you think. There's enough room here for everyone, and tourism can change the constant process of terrorism and wars."

The last view of the day, from the peak of Mount Kabir, awakened no end of questions: Does anyone, for all the endless talk about establishing two states for two nations, have a fair solution to the Palestinian problem? Is evacuating the settlements in Samaria viable? Don't the thousands of homes I saw on the hilltops render such a solution unrealistic and disconnected from reality?

All the people I met were welcoming and hospitable. But the reality is different - disconnected, insoluble and discouraging.

Vered Ben Sa'adon at the winery in Rachelim settlement in the West Bank.Credit: Moshe Gilad
The veranda at Havat Yair in the West Bank.Credit: Moshe Gilad
The veranda at Havat Yair in the West Bank. Credit: Moshe Gilad

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