In recent weeks, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have placed the words "Israeli settlements" on the front pages of global newspapers. In the administration's rush to revive the Middle East peace process, both have demanded a freeze on settlements, including "natural growth," which to the ears of some Israelis amounts to a ban on childbearing and room additions.
This leaves one asking, first of all, what is a settlement? The definition of this hot-button political term has always been a little confusing to me. A couple of years ago, I was invited to visit a rabbi and his family in Kfar Etzion - part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc (population 60,000). This rabbi is the son of a friend back in California, and his pleasant home is situated in what a Californian like me would call a "gated community."
Kfar Etzion was rebuilt near the scene of a 1948 massacre of Jews; the survivors vowed to return, and after the Six Day War they did. Today, along with its brave history, Kfar Etzion boasts a population of 400, two identical synagogues and a communal spirit. Granted, the guard at the gate is heavily armed, and an IDF base bristles with weaponry just across the valley. But my mental image of Wild West outlaws squatting on illegal land bore no resemblance to the child-friendly gardens and streets I saw, and the peace-minded modern Orthodox residents I met.
Then I got to know a family from Ariel - friends of friends - whose daughter, a promising jazz singer, frequently performs in Tel Aviv. These folks are anything but religious settlers. They are, in fact, self-described agnostics. They moved to Ariel decades ago when it was the only place in which they could afford to buy a flat or raise a family. The father is a brooding Holocaust survivor who lost more than 40 family members in the camps and made aliya from the Balkans as a young man. The mother is a pretty and cheerful sabra. They have three daughters, one in the IDF, and earn their living in the hi-tech industry.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago I moved into a close friend's guest apartment in Har Adar - a lovely and quiet suburb of Jerusalem, verdant with flowers and trees, blessed with spectacular views of Jerusalem and of surrounding Arab villages. Har Adar, although barely across the Green Line, is also a settlement. I arrived for the summer just in time to hear Obama's demands that all settlement growth must cease. As fate would have it, I had just increased Har Adar's population by one.
FORMER AMBASSADOR to the UN Dore Gold recently explained in a column in The Jerusalem Post that "Israeli settlements in the territories captured in the 1967 war date back more than 40 years. They began as military and agricultural outposts that were located for the most part in strategically significant areas of the West Bank, which Israel planned to eventually claim. These settlements were also situated in areas from which Jews had been evicted during the 1948-49 war..."
Other settlements were later erected deeper in Judea and Samaria for ideological reasons, in an effort by religious Zionists to put down Jewish roots again in such biblical places as Shiloh, Beit El and Efrata. But as Gold pointed out, it was not until the Carter administration that the US State Department declared settlements to be in violation of international law. Yet Carter's policy was then reversed by all of his successors, who deemed them problematic but not illegal.
This official approach persisted until 2001, when George Mitchell authored the "Mitchell Report," which recommended that, as a part of confidence-building measures between the parties, "Israel should freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements."
Clearly the size, character, appearance and reputation of the various cities, towns, regional councils and neighborhoods within the settlement enterprise vary significantly. There is, however, one kind of settlement that really seems to embody the gun-toting, Wild West stereotype - the "outpost"; and especially if it is populated by the most unruly of all the settlers - the "hilltop youths."
In 1998, on the eve of the Wye Plantation talks that were to divide up the West Bank, then-cabinet minister Ariel Sharon famously told the settlement movement that "everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours... Everything we don't grab will go to them."
Inspired by this command from their erstwhile hero and by the religious vision of a Greater Israel based on biblically defined borders, a band of religious nationalists began to occupy the barren, windy hilltops of Samaria.
The first such hilltop outpost was established by a settler from Itamar, overlooking the ancient city of Shechem (today's Nablus), who began parking each of his sons on the successive peaks of a ridge running eastward down towards the Jordan Valley. In the wake of that move, he has since become head of the entire Samaria Regional Council, which includes 60,000 residents spread over more than 30 communities.
I HAVE heard and read a range of arguments about the hilltop youths - some commentators defend their patriotic courage and commitment to Judaism; others describe them as troublemaking anarchists with no respect for parents, rabbis or the State of Israel. They have grown up under a failed Oslo peace process, a horrific wave of terrorism in the second intifada and the August 2005 uprooting by prime minister Sharon of the very settlements in Gaza that he had helped to establish. As some explain it, among this third generation of settlers are those who no longer listen to or trust anyone.
So when I was invited to visit a few of them in their far-flung communities, I was eager to go. In my mind, when it comes to settlers, these sounded like the "real thing," unlike my secular suburbanite neighbors in Har Adar.
We met first with David Ha'ivri, a liaison for the Samaria Regional Council from the far-right community of Kfar Tapuah. He had agreed to take us to one of the more established hilltop outposts - Givot Olam - several peaks over on that ridge east of Itamar. He described it as a thriving "ranch" that is not only the largest producer of organic eggs in Israel, but also provides goat milk for retail establishments throughout the country. Givot Olam also contains the largest ancient Jewish winepress and wine cellar ever found in the region, dating back 3,200 years - almost to the time of Joshua's conquest of the land.
Ha'ivri first guided us to the central feature of the outpost, a light-filled community center with a spotless kitchen, dining room and outside tables that provide a gathering place for the 50 young and industrious residents who build its structures and tend to its animals. Yes, there are guns around, and we were quietly informed that we weren't particularly welcomed by all who were there - less because we were Christians than because we were journalists, and therefore assumed to be hostile. "They've been burned by reporters before," Ha'ivri explained.
Nonetheless, after a cup of coffee laced with goat's milk and sugar, we went out to see the place. I'll leave it to politicians and rabbis and scholars to argue the pros and cons of outposts such as Givot Olam and will simply describe what is there.
OUR FIRST stop was at a stone memorial dedicated to Joshua, the biblical hero. The mild-mannered young artist who designed it, Asaf Kidron, was deeply grieved by Sharon's disengagement from Gaza. Here, on one of the very hilltops Sharon had encouraged Israelis to settle, Kidron has fashioned a monument out of stones from every place mentioned in the Bible where Joshua set foot. His handiwork includes a lengthy tribute to the Israelite leader, who challenged his people to have courage and strength as they took possession of their God-given land.
We stood in an ancient winepress carved in bedrock circa 1,200 BCE, while Ha'ivri told us about award-winning boutique wines now being produced in Samaria. We also descended a narrow stone staircase for a quick look inside a centuries-old wine cellar nearby.
From there we walked to small but beautiful synagogue, also decorated by Asaf Kidron. It was the first building constructed in Givot Olam after its gifted and controversial founder, Avri Ran, pitched tents on the hilltop. Since that time electricity and water and public transport have arrived. An "at-risk youth" program has been set in motion, small children with colorful backpacks walk safely to and from school and the organic farming enterprise has prospered. Across the valley, Ha'ivri pointed out a Chabad yeshiva on another hilltop.
As to Givot Olam's peace and security, in 2005 Avri Ran said, "The Arabs are not afraid of me. They revere me. They are wary of me, yes. Have I set out regulations? Certainly. There is not one Arab in the Nablus region who dares to work contrary to my rules. Every Arab knows this. What does this say? This says that there is a Jew in town, a son of Abraham our father - that the ancient Jews have returned a little to the Land of Israel. And a Jew must be respected..."
IT WAS Friday, and our hosts had to finish their duties before Shabbat, but on our way back we stopped briefly to see the goats in one of the ranch's immaculate barns. I walked into a surreally tranquil scene, with sun filtering through skylights, and singing birds flying in and out of the broad doorways. Ha'ivri pointed toward a loft above me as I stood inside the barn. "Do you see that piano?" he asked me. "Someone plays the piano while the goats are being milked, to soothe them."
Minutes later, we headed for Har Adar. I left Givot Olam with the idea that I'd probably return. For one thing, I'm curious about a local wine and goat-cheese tasting event scheduled to take place there in coming weeks. But I also hope to learn a little more about the people who live on the windswept hilltops: What do they hope for and what do they fear? How they will react to President Obama's hard-line stance against settlement growth, and to the government's response? Just how serious are they about their vow that there will be no more uprooting of settlements or outposts "without a price."
Their answers may be as unyielding as the ancient Samarian stones. Because if what I've read about these settlers is true, in recent years they have drawn a few hard lines of their own.
The writer has authored or coauthored more than 60 books, primarily in ecumenical Christian nonfiction, including the award-winning Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion (Oxford University Press, 2009). She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.