Settlers Latch on to Tourism as Key to Holding West Bank

Yesha council hopes boutique wineries, archaeological sites will make settlements more mainstream.

From Givat Ahiyah, 857 meters above sea level, one can see thousands of olive trees in the Shilo Valley below. When Yossi and Ronit Shoker planted them here 12 years ago, their action had a lot of romance in it and mostly ideology. The hundreds of dunams on which the trees were planted were leased to the Ahiyah Farm by the World Zionist Organization's settlement department. There was a dual purpose: redeeming as much state land as possible to prevent Palestinians from taking them over, and creating a foundation for Hebrew labor.

Today, Yossi Shoker is gone. He was seriously injured in a work accident in the olive press he built and died six and half years later. But his homemade olive press has become a major operation that handles 1,500 tons of olives per season and has annual sales of NIS 10 million. It and the adjacent olive groves have become a tourist attraction, especially around this time of year, when the miracle of the jug of oil is celebrated.

Yair Hirsch, the CEO of Eretz Zeit Shemen Muvhar, Ltd., which is better known on the market as Ahiyah Oil, notes that the state does not allocate even a minimum water quota for their olive groves.

"We pay three times as much as any other farmer in the country," he said.

Despite this, this olive press, now located in Shilo, has gained a far-reaching reputation and it receives olives from Har Hanegev, the Beit She'an Valley, the Golan Heights and Kiryat Gat, employs 40 workers and enjoys the financial support of Moni Lehman (the owner of Lehman and Schlissel) and diamond dealer Moshe Namdar, who invested in the venture as partners several years ago.

Barak Malet also has his own olive press, albeit a smaller one. His is located in Nekuda, the western outpost of Itamar, and there too, like at Ahiyah, they are strict about using Jewish labor only. Malet works with farmers who grow dozens of dunams of olives near their homes and his olive press also attracts domestic tourism. During the olive harvest season, families with lots of kids show up with plastic bags and knapsacks filled with olives to experience the process of making oil.

Yitzhak Mackover and Yehuda Lavanash's olive press near Herodion, not far from Tekoa, also lets the public be part of the olive oil festivities.

Fighting with fun

The founding fathers of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza sanctified the principle of fighting for the land of Israel with demography, and from the start they devoted all their efforts to increasing the population.

In the late 1980s the residents realized their chances were slim that in a demographic fight and they moved to a fight over the land. The emphasis was redirected to acquiring as much land as possible via outposts, roads, businesses, industrial areas, orchards and various tourist enterprises.

In recent years, it seems leaders have recognized that those two tactics, while fine for their times, no longer work. The message to local residents and all around Israel is one of complete normalization and disconnecting the area of Judea and Samaria from their political context as much as possible.

Against this backdrop, the regional councils and development authorities are upgrading internal tourism with bed-and-breakfasts in the Binyamin Region, boutique wineries in Samaria, archaeological sites in the southern Hebron hills and guided tours of scenic sites alongside tours in the footsteps of the Bible, Jewish tradition and history. These efforts have culminated in the latest campaign of the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza: "Judea and Samaria, the story of every Jew."

The site of biblical Shilo, where the Tabernacle stood and where there is now a sound and light show and actors playing biblical characters, is just one example. Another popular tour combines nature, the Ein Fuar springs, and history: a route taken in the past by figures such as the British Colonel Spalding in World War I and the Assyrians on their way to Jerusalem, and Jonathan, the son of King Saul.

Near Psagot, a Second Temple era cave that has been transformed into a wine cellar with natural underground refrigeration has become an attraction. Bentzi Lieberman, a former chairman of the Yesha Council, acknowledged shortly before leaving his post that "the settlers are living on borrowed time: if we don't create something else for the public, something dynamic, relevant and up-to-date, if we don't use a different, Israeli, language, that will connect the public to us, the danger of us becoming irrelevant will increase."

Lieberman at the time cited Ariel College and the Barkan Industrial Zone as examples of successful marketing, "that blur boundaries, roadblocks and the Green Line, projects that cross borders and span across opinions, that are beyond all the little fears and connect the broad Israeli public to here."

Lieberman sought the hundreds of thousand who would venture to Judea and Samaria because practically speaking, it's worthwhile for them to come.

"If we are not able to create these kinds of projects, in terms of language, content and essence and also in the economic sense," Lieberman warned then, "if we don't speak a language that Israelis understand, we won't be here." Today, Lieberman's vision is taking shape and increasing numbers of Israelis are visiting Judea and Samaria for reasons that are not political. Instead they are going for the experience and the fun.