In the interest of gathering a first-person take regarding the mood on the ground, I met with 30-year-old Elisha Medan in Beer Sheba — the city closest to his illegal outpost home, Avigail. Driving a white Land Rover outfitted with two-way radios and reinforced glass, Medan briefed me during a half-hour drive on mostly deserted back roads bordering sparsely vegetated, craggy hillsides near Hebron, Kiryat Arba, and Bethlehem.
Soon after the second intifada erupted, Medan and three friends — all in their mid-twenties — founded Avigail. The four had all been raised on West Bank settlements and dreamed of one day starting their own community. But government approval for new settlement building was not forthcoming, so the only way to go in 2001 was illegal. Squat and stake a claim.
Medan met with the Judea and Samaria head of council, who took him to what now comprises a 70-member hilltop community overlooking the Yatta and Dawani Arab villages in the wadi below. Medan explains:
He said there were strategic and tactical reasons for building there. Israeli drivers were being targeted by Palestinians hiding on the roadside, pulling hits and disappearing back into their villages before anyone could catch them. … So he wanted a vantage point above the road. In the bigger picture, we would be continuing the link in the Jewish settlement chain.
A map of the West Bank illustrates the chain and the parallel “village versus settlement race” Medan bemoaned during our journey. He explained that Arab villages routinely expand beyond demarcated areas, sparking a building race with Jewish settlers. Driving along the paved road, the divide was clear: Arab villages to the northwest, Jewish settlements to the east.
In practical terms, the rift is more complicated. Avigail settlers get along surprisingly well with their Arab neighbors, a fact Medan hastily noted as we sipped coffee in the open living room space of his self-built log cabin home, with picture windows overlooking Yatta Village. The blue-eyed father of two displayed gifts recently bestowed upon his newborn son by a well-wishing Arab neighbor.
His problem is with left-leaning Israelis and European protesters he says frequently visit the hillside, inciting Arab neighbors:
They tell them: “This is your land. Come with us.” They come up to our area and instigate friction.
If not for them, things would be calm.
If this is the case, how does Medan address the international bodies — the United Nations, Amnesty International, the European Union, and Human Rights Watch, to name a few — who declare the settlements illegal?
This is our land and we’re not afraid of saying it. … I have coexistence with my neighbors but we will not be impotent. They want peace? Our hand is always outstretched. But if you hit me, I’ll hit you back twice. And harder. After that we’ll talk peace.
A building ban injunction was filed against Avigail in Israel’s high court within months of their arrival. But eight years later, the jury is still out. The settlers have built a dozen or so pre-fab, built-to-deconstruct-on-evacuation-order homes, and a paved road leading to the synagogue, ritual bath, and a soon-to-be pizza joint.
But their illegal status combined with the constant threat of evacuation weighs heavily. U.S. demands are a concern, but Medan is under the impression that the U.S. government should conform to Israel’s needs if they want friends in the region. That’s wishful thinking under the current U.S. administration, a shift that may spell Avigail’s demise, and dismantling would be tragic:
What will I do if we have to leave? Do you ask a father what he plans to do after his child dies of cancer? I’m here because the Israeli government wants me to be here for reasons that are much larger than you or me. There is no reason for us to be removed.
I walk a few hundred feet across the road to the two-bedroom, A-frame prefab David and Shira Recanati share with their three children: an infant and two grade-schoolers. David, 29, belongs to the Recanati family, credited as one of the top five donors to Israel.
He admits to having left the family fold to opt for an isolated hilltop life, but he he views himself and his family as the vanguard of Israel’s future, living on the frontlines of a political war being fought over land ownership.
Standing at the Recanati family kitchen sink, I notice David’s revolver lying on the countertop. The quiet, pastoral setting can — and does — turn hostile with the click of a safety catch.
There have been no violent incidents since Avigail settlers moved in, but Shira’s car was pelted with stones during Operation Cast Lead, and she worries about her safety when driving on the deserted roads at night. The attractive, dark-haired 30-year-old confides:
The toughest part is I don’t feel like my country supports me. … In Israeli society we’re considered pariahs and outcasts. But if I’m not here, there’s no Israel. I sleep fitfully at night worrying the Arabs will kill me and my children in our sleep and my own people turn their backs on me.