Down in the Valley

He ordered me to advance towards him with an abrupt, impatient gesture. As the soldier wordlessly drew a rectangle in the air, I realized that he wanted my identity papers. "Why are you driving here?" he demanded to know. "There is a lane for Israelis, without a check." "There's no sign," I replied, to which he said,"but everyone knows. Next time drive through there."

Clearly, he was at least capable of talking. But I am resolved to drive in the Arabs' lane next time, too, because it is more fun. Six- or seven-year-old boys sell coffee there to the drivers. They too did not understand how this Jewish client had suddenly appeared on their side.

That morning there was not much activity at the Tapuah checkpoint, the entry gate to the third strip of land, in the Jordan Valley, occupied by Israel. The first strip twists along the Green Line (the border before the Six-Day War) to the mountain ridge; the second strip runs along the mountain ridge, and from there slides down to the third strip - the Jordan Valley.

At this time of year, the sun has turned the hills yellow, sharpening the distinction between Palestinian and Jewish villages that descend into the valley: hothouse green where the Jews are, yellow-khaki where the Arabs are. Even the plastic of the hothouses has a national coloration. Taut, white, proud plastic signals Jewish hothouses; torn, dirty, used plastic belongs to the Palestinians.

The graffiti on the ruins of old buildings, which have for decades stood along the sides of the road, are blazoned with "Oslo criminals to justice," but there is no Palestinian graffiti. If along all the strips of land occupied by Israel, the main distinction seems to be between Jews and Arabs, the second and third strips distinguish between Jews and Jews - between those from the mountain ridge, from Ofra and Kedumim, Amona and Har Berakha, and those from Hemdat, Mahola, Gittit and Patzael.

Hemdat began as the Yabbuk Nahal outpost and later developed into a kibbutz affiliated with the Shomer Hatzair youth movement and the Scouts. However, the kibbutz did not hold up. The army took the site into its hands and gave it back to Nahal nuclei for safekeeping, until the Amana movement, the Gush Emunim settlement movement, gave it civilian status in 1997.

Quality of life

Four years ago, Ya'ala Brenner came to Hemdat from Elkanah, an upscale settlement. "Settling the land? No, I was looking for quality of life," she announces from her chair in the settlement's office. "At Elkanah they send the children to 10 extracurricular enrichment activities, travel abroad once or twice a year; they buy new cars and there is the tremendous pressure of a city. I couldn't afford all that and I looked for a place where I would also be able to be close to nature," she explains. At Hemdat, Brenner received a mortgage of NIS 400,000 and bought a plot of land and a large house. Though the property tax is high, about NIS 425 a month per family, and the settlement's local tax is about NIS 250 a month, "these are expenditures I can manage," she says.

Suddenly, it seems religious settlers are also craving a certain "quality of life" - not only the sanctity of the land. "We are normal people, we also read secular literature," Brenner protests with a smile as she shows me the small library that operates from her grocery store in the settlement. There are books by Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, for example, and also translations of world literature, but no sacred books. "Everyone buys the sacred books for his own home," she says.

Any member of the 36 families in Hemdat who may be interested in going into the grocery store or the library can get the key from Brenner, write down what he has taken and return the key. On the door, Brenner also lists the days on which bread and dairy products arrive. This too is apparently part of their quality of life. The culture committee's activity schedule offers residents a building workshop for men, a lecture on overdraft, a men's outing "between water and bikes," a fun day for women at Nir David, story readings for children and also a distribution of challah at the settlement of Hamra, which has been adopted by Hemdat.

Hannah Agiv has four children. "When you marry at the age of 17-and-a-half, you manage a lot," she says. She came to Hemdat two years ago. She is originally from Meitar, near Be'er Sheva, but after she married, she moved to Yattir in the southern Hebron Hills, the home of her husband's family - a family of founders, like Brenner's family in Elkanah.

It was important to Agiv to settle the land of Israel, of course, for there to be as many settled territories and as few swaths of empty land as possible. But she still hears, as do Brenner and Hila Shuali, who came to Hemdat from Hafetz Haim, the clanking of bulldozer chains that flattened houses in Gaza settlements.

"I always think about the bulldozer that will come when I think about building something else in the house," admits Brenner. "We know that this could happen, and we hope that it won't happen," says Agiv. "We didn't believe it was possible to evacuate Gush Katif. We believed that the soldiers would refuse to obey orders and when it happened, we were in shock."

"One of the people here is a policeman who participated in the evacuation of Amona. There was a lot of anger," Agiv adds.

His wife, kindergarten teacher Ayelet Vaknin who came to Hemdat from Shfayim, relates that "it was very difficult. People didn't accept it that he was in his official capacity."

Outside, on the small grassy area between the Nahal outpost's temporary structures, the regional day camp is underway. There are about a hundred children at Hemdat. Some of the children playing there wear kaffiyehs, others clutch toy pistols and rifles. "We are playing kidnappers and captives," says one of them. "Over there are the bad guys who kidnapped, and we have to rescue the captive."

In the kindergarten run by Batsheva Gannot and Vaknin, children are playing a different game. It is geography day and the children are "flying" to New Zealand. "If the bulldozers come here, we won't even bother the government. We'll also fly out of here," says Gannot. "Six tickets and we're abroad."

Without a struggle?

"Without a struggle."

The land is not sacred

Dina Gitlis also says she will not fight. She belongs to the same settlement strip as Brenner and Agiv, Shuali and Gannot, the women who rule in Hemdat during the morning hours until their husbands come home from work.

Gitlis came to Patzael in the Jordan Valley 36 years ago, because "they said that more people were needed ...Today I don't wake up in the morning and think that I am settling the land of Israel."

Nor does Zvi Singer who came to Patzael from Kibbutz Ein Gev and was a farmer for many years until lost his son Ofer to a terror attack in Tel Aviv in September, 2002. Then he and his wife decided to quit farming and open a branch of Be'er Sheva Ice Cream at Mifgash Hibiq'a, as the first generation of secular settlers in the Jordan Valley.

Yuval Yedidia adds, "It wasn't the sanctity of the land that interested us, but rather the soil. We are the true settlers. We believe in the soil and not in the sanctity of the soil." Yedidia wishes to stress that he is expressing his own opinion and not collective opinion. But gradually it becomes clear that there is no such thing as a personal opinion and a collective opinion.

Gitlis, for example, believes that anything is possible in post-disengagement Gaza, and the question of whether to cover the roof of her home with aluminum sheets or to buy a "tall tool" - a special tractor for harvesting dates - depends on "whether we're staying here or not."

And if the convergence, or "realignment," comes here?

"So then we'll leave."

Yedidia adds, "No stone or bullet is going to remove us, but if we can't bring bread to the children, that's what will remove us."

Of the 97 families that live in Patzael, only about 10 earn their living exclusively from agriculture. "Everyone needs fewer and fewer workers now, fewer Arabs and fewer Thais," said one member of Patzael who preferred to remain anonymous. "The disengagement already exists in our hearts. We are already pretty elderly. Old. We have seen the dream to its fullest."

At Hemdat they are prepared to accept new members and there is land for about another 200 housing units, but no one is standing in line. At Patzael they are no longer prepared to accept newcomers. Only returning children. If evacuation-compensation takes place here one day, residents would prefer it to stay in the family.