Settlements: Har Gilo's surprised settlers

The expansion of this West Bank neighborhood has attracted plenty of newcomers, but many of them claim it has nothing to do with ideology.

'Why would you think I'm a settler?" asked Etti Hason, a black-haired mother of three who stood by the sink in her new kitchen in Har Gilo, located a mere 200 meters outside Jerusalem. The idea that she might be considered one had startled her. She smiled at the oddity of the thought, before she insisted, "I most certainly am not." She wore a low scoop grey T-shirt and pants. As she spoke, she was in the midst of unpacking the plastic grocery bags that filled her counter top. "I am a person, like any other person in Israel. I came here for the quality of life," Hason said. It isn't that she has anything against settlers, she explained, it is just that unlike her, they are driven by nationalist ideology, while she is all about personal values. Settlers, she said, "are people who love the land more than I do. They would give their soul for it. I would only give my soul for my family." Her answer was similar to others on her street. "Lets just say that I am a citizen of Israel," said one young mother. The fact that in the last few years these families have moved into newly built single-family homes or small apartment buildings located 1.8 kilometers over the pre-1967 line, they explained, was an accident of geography and not an ideological statement. If one wants an affordable large home in a small community close enough to Jerusalem to almost be part of the city, Har Gilo is an obvious choice, said Hason and others on her block. Their 238-unit project made the news this week, because 149 of its homes were on the list of 455 apartments that Defense Minister Ehud Barak authorized as a prelude to placing a six-month moratorium on any new settlement construction. At present there are some 2,500 units under construction in West Bank settlements, a number that is similar to past years. In spite of US demands for a freeze on all settlement activity, Israel intends to allow their completion, along with the newly authorized 455. The bulk of construction is in the largest settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, as of March there were 594 units under construction in Modi'in Illit, a settlement of 41,700. In Betar Illit, population 38,700, 332 units are being built. In Ma'aleh Adumim, 33,800, 583 units; in Ariel, 16,800, 108 units; and in Givat Ze'ev, 11,000, 275 units. But unlike these larger settlements, Har Gilo in 2007 had only 462 people. So the 238-unit project currently underway will effectively double if not triple its size. It could grow even larger than this due to the high demand for apartments in the area, said veteran settler Simha Eizenstein. The scope of the project, which is under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization's settlement division, is obvious to the naked eye. From the moment one enters Har Gilo, one can see that dirt roads and housing starts have taken over an entire hillside. Palestinians have been so concerned about this project that in 2000, when work first began on the homes, Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat called then prime minister Ehud Barak and threatened to halt peace talks unless the building was frozen. But Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein has continued to push for the project. In 2005, then defense minister Shaul Mofaz approved 34 homes, Goldstein said. Barak and Ehud Olmert gave the green light to another 55 last year and then reapproved the project in its entirety in November. Goldstein said he has a letter from Uzi Keren, the prime minister's settlement adviser, to that effect. This should have allowed some movement on the remaining 149 homes, but the civil administration was keeping the contractors at bay. "We tried to tell them that the project had been approved by the prime minister, but everyone was afraid," said Goldstein. A secretary at the Har Gilo office said that the settlement remained skeptical that the project had truly been green-lighted. Nothing will happen now until after the holidays, she said, "then we will see." A contractor for the project, however, said that the latest approval was in fact enough to move the project forward. PEACE NOW has warned that Har Gilo breaks the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state and that its close proximity to the village of Walaje and the town of Beit Jala would make it difficult to include within Israel's final boundaries. But Har Gilo residents disagree. They point out that the settlement is within the security barrier, whose large concrete blocs immediately abut their settlement. Har Gilo is located on a hilltop with a panoramic view so strategic that the Turkish, British and Jordanian armies all had bases there, said Eizenstein. An IDF army base has been there since the end of the Six Day War. Goldstein said that Har Gilo is part of the Gush Etzion bloc; and it has long been accepted by international principle that this bloc will be included within Israel's final border. Even former US president Jimmy Carter spoke in June of his belief that Israel would retain Gush Etzion, although he did not specify Har Gilo. Residents point out that their secular community hardly fits the mold of a typical settlement. Environmentalists from the Society for the Protection of Nature established it in 1972. They built a field school there as well as an observatory for birds. Eizenstein said he came there from Beersheba in 1978 because he was given an apartment while he served in the army. A Kadima voter, he said his attachment has everything to do with the view and the clean air, and little to do with ideology. His views are not so different from his neighbors'. In the last election, more Har Gilo residents voted for Labor and Meretz than Habayit Hayehudi and National Union. The Likud garnered the most votes from Har Gilo residents, but Kadima followed closely behind. Hason said she reluctantly voted Likud, but added that she does not always vote. "Politics is not for me and it does not interest me," she said. It did not occur to her that she had placed her family in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She did not think about it when she moved to Har Gilo in 1999, or when she purchased the lot in 2002, or when she moved into her newly built home in 2006. Her daughter Almog, nine, commutes to Jerusalem where she attends a Hebrew and Arabic dual language school that has both Jewish and Palestinian children."I wanted her to grow up with a tolerance for others," Hason said. The Palestinian children even come here to visit. The possibility that Har Gilo could be handed over to the Palestinians, she said, never enters her mind. Her neighbor, Liat Adika, who had just moved from Jerusalem into her new home across the street, with her husband and three children, said for her it was about economics. "We could not afford to buy in Jerusalem," said Adika, who now has a home with a wooden swing outside and a glass fireplace that holds wooden logs built into the wall. "It's green and quiet," she said. She too laughed at the idea that she could be considered a settler. Up the road, Ilana Marciano watched her two boys play with a soccer ball on their stone patio. From a security perspective, she said, she was aware it was a settlement when they moved there from Gilo in 2007. She had heard that at one time, before the tunnel road was built, people had been shot at and stoned while driving to the area. But then, she pointed out, that at the start of the second intifada with all the shooting from nearby Beit Jala, she had not been that safe in Gilo either. She said it was clear to her that Har Gilo would always be part of Israel. "We are in the heart of the consensus," she said.