PEDUEL, West Bank — Since its inception over half a century ago, the settlement movement has been driven largely by ideological nationalists who have worked to solidify Jewish presence in the biblical heartland.
As the communities they established in the West Bank slowly became normalized onto Israeli maps and the government all but ceased officially allowing new ones to sprout, the next generation of settlers finds itself in new circumstances in which there appears to be less of a need for the ideology of its predecessors.
To understand the new identity being formed by youth over the Green Line, The Times of Israel sat down with recent high school graduates from six settlements for a wide-ranging discussion on growing up in the West Bank.
While the teens expressed appreciation for the beliefs that inspired their parents to move across the Green Line, it was not high among the reasons given for why they hope to stay.
The group revealed diverse views on the influence the politically charged territory had on their childhood, on their Palestinian neighbors, and even on the meaning behind the term “settler.”
They recognized the disproportionate impact the security situation had on their adolescence, but still spoke in unison about how they would not have had it any other way. Again and again, the 18-year-olds explained that it was the “good quality of life” they enjoyed in the settlements that — more than anything else — will compel them to hopefully return one day so that their own children can enjoy the same experience.
Thoughts on all the settlement hubbub
The teens acknowledged that the West Bank setting, the only reality they know, made for a unique childhood experience.
“It’s not tangential that we live here,” said Ayala Englander of Karnei Shomron. “It is constantly on the agenda. Whether it’s a deterioration in the security situation, or a terror attack, or even when I am left forgotten at a bus stop late at night,” it impacts on her life, she explained.
But despite the West Bank’s prominence in the country’s political discourse, the teens pointed out that the familiarity of those on the other side of the Green Line with their communities is minimal.
“Every time I go out to the city and tell people where I live, they always ask ‘where is that?'” Englander recalled.
“And then you tell them, and they go, ‘ohhh, so you’re a settler!” chimed in Shay Nahum from the nearby religious town of Kedumim.
The young adults all acknowledged hearing that phrase on a number of occasions, but their views on its connotation varied.
Englander admitted she wasn’t a huge fan of being called a settler, saying it suggested that she was not in her proper place.
I don’t really feel like a settler, said the Ariel resident. I’ve only hitchhiked once in my life!
But Shahar Glick of the southern West Bank religious community of Otniel was less bothered by the term. “A settler is just a person who is reclaiming his heritage,” he said, referring to the root of the Hebrew word. “It is not an occupier.”
The 18-year-old did allow, however, that the term carries quite a bit of baggage. “People in Yeruham (the southern Israeli town where he went to high school) assumed I spent my evenings at the side of the road hurling stones at Palestinians, and friends in Otniel think of me as the the leftist pluralist. Why? Because of stigmas,” he lamented.
For a while, Shon Vetshtein listened quietly as the other teens debated the issue.
Asked if he had anything to add, he shook his head no.
“I don’t really live in a settlement. Ariel’s a massive city,” he said of the northern West Bank town of roughly 20,000.
“Yes, I get jokingly called a settler by people who meet me from time to time, but I don’t really feel like one. I’ve only hitchhiked once in my entire life and even then it was just happenstance!” he added.
Thumbing a ride
Vetshtein’s remark on hitchhiking followed several others made by his peers who highlighted the prominence of the alternative transportation mode in their lives in the West Bank.
Glick said that rather than the security situation, what most influences his life as a settler is the lack of access he has to neighboring communities.
“Life here for me is more about the reality of having maybe five buses a day, one lane for each direction and Palestinians flying by at crazy speeds,” the son of Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick said, smiling.
Englander said that the infrequent bus schedule meant she was sometimes forced to arrive several hours early to school if there was a test she could not afford to miss.
In the more isolated communities of the Jordan Valley, hitchhiking is also a preferred mode of transportation for youngsters without access to a car. However, Ofri Sela from Kibbutz Gilgal said that parents in the Jordan Valley don’t typically allow their children to wait at junctions outside the communities on their own.
“I know two families who lost members in terror attacks because they waited at the junction alone, so people are incredibly cautious by us,” Sela said.
That degree of caution appeared foreign to the rest of the group, who asked the Kibbutz Gilgal resident to share more about life in the Jordan Valley.
“It seems like it’s the Negev of Judea and Samaria,” quipped Vetshtein, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
Sela said growing up in the Jordan Valley meant “a limited number of friends,” due to the sparse population of the regional council’s communities, which number in the low hundreds.
But this has not soured Sela’s perception of her childhood.
“Even though I grew up in the middle of nowhere, I feel like I can now thrive as an adult better than most other people because I was forced from a young age to learn how to be independent,” she explained.
‘Big Brother times a million’
Englander put a similarly positive spin on the somewhat isolated nature of the settlements, saying it has contributed to “a much more communal vibe” within each town.
Nahum said that her grade of 70 students in Kedumim was particularly tight. She admitted that as the community further expands, it’s harder to maintain that feeling. However, the 18-year-old said, the town’s leadership is aware of the situation and working to ensure that it does not lose that “communal vibe.”
“They just opened up a hummus joint where people are always hanging out,” Nahum said.
“For many, it does not bother them that they do not have clubs and malls because there is a vibrant social life,” said Englander.
But Glick argued the close-knit community also has its drawbacks.
“There is a ton of gossip here. Take Big Brother and multiply it by a million,” he said, as his peers smirked in agreement upon his reference to the hit Israeli TV reality show.
Asked if he thought the communal atmosphere is unique to small communities in the West Bank, Glick acknowledged the feeling could be found elsewhere, but that the settlements offered their own additional flavor. “There’s a unique style in the settlements — like the surrounding Arab villages, the similar landscape seen throughout, not to mention Blundstones (shoes) and shoresh sandals. We’re like kibbutzniks, but a little different.” he said.
“I am a kibbutznik, not like a kibbutznik,” interjected Sela.
Tree-climbing instead of WhatsApping
Save for hummus joints and pizzerias, the high school graduates acknowledged that many of the communities in the West Bank — like smaller towns within the Green Line — do not boast ideal hangout spots for Israelis in their later teens and above.
“Until the age of 17-18, it’s incredible. You’re out climbing trees with your friends instead of being glued to your smartphone,” Glick reminisced. “But as you get older, you start to see the negatives a little bit more.”
The Otniel resident said his town had recently closed its convenience store, rendering him temporarily without a place to buy milk.
“That’s what neighbors are for, bro,” piped Noam Hasson from the central West Bank settlement of Michmash.
Hasson was the lone member of the group who had no intention of returning to his childhood town later on in life. The teen said he’d had a hard time fitting in with the other youth there who are very connected to the land and dream of becoming officers in the IDF.
“That’s just not me,” he said sincerely.
Nonetheless, Hasson stressed the importance of maintaining Jewish presence in the West Bank — a message with which his peers identified.
“It’s the ideology on which I was raised,” explained Nahum of Kedumim. “We were taught to understand where we are living and that it’s not just any random place in Israel.”
While Glick wholly identifies with that ideology, he argued that its importance has diminished.
“There has been a sort of evolution taking place within the settlements themselves,” explained Glick, whose parents moved to Otniel 20 years ago in order to “strengthen” the settlement following a deadly terror attack.
“It was for ideological reasons,” he said. “While it’s clear to me that those things are important, I don’t see them as being as vital as they used to be.”
Glick said the kid-friendly atmosphere is what draws him back to the West Bank hilltops.
For Sela, ideology’s role in her connection to her home in the Jordan Valley is largely nonexistent.
“I don’t like to get into ideology. It’s definitely the atmosphere and the togetherness that attracts me to this place. Everybody is equal here. No one town stands on its own,” said the Kibbutz Gilgal resident.
Ariel vs. Otniel
But Sela’s point about the prominence of equality appeared to be unique to the Jordan Valley settlements.
Because when they were asked whether they viewed certain communities as “more important” than others as far as the growth of the settlement movement is concerned, a fascinating debate ensued.
“At the end of the day, I pay a higher price than he does for living where I do,” said Otniel’s Glick of Ariel’s Vetshtein as he asserted that the more isolated nature of his hometown made it more deserving of development efforts.
While Vetshtein recognized the importance of smaller settlements like Otniel, he argued that they have less influence.
“The more developed a community is, the more power it has.”
The 18-year-old recalled hearing “rumors” as a child about the possibility of Ariel being evacuated.
Vetshtein wondered aloud whether it had been a tactic by those in charge to promote development in the settlement.
“Today we are a massive city and there’s no way in the world they’ll clear us out of here,” he said matter-of-factly.
The Ariel resident also disputed Glick’s assertion regarding the greater risk he takes by living in Otniel.
“From the standpoint of terror attacks, while there is often more of a concern regarding those more remote places, at the Ariel Junction we’ve had quite a few attacks,” Vetshtein said of the northern West Bank interchange where Itamar Ben-Gal was stabbed to death last February.
On the topic of settlement evacuations, none of the six teens interviewed said they had participated in demonstrations aimed at preventing the bulldozers from reaching houses on demolition day.
To outsiders, protesting against the destruction of Israeli homes might be seen as a given for members of the settlement movement, but the teens who spoke with The Times of Israel said it was not that simple.
“I have not been to a single evacuation. I think it’s important that people go, but I personally don’t like to go to those kinds of things,” said Hasson of Michmash.
Asked if others perceive his absence at such demonstrations as a statement in and of itself, Hasson dismissed the suggestion.
“It has nothing to do with ideology. Just because I live here doesn’t mean you can interpret every move I make as some grand ideological statement.”
Englander and Nahum each recalled visiting Amona and Ofra in 2017 to show solidarity with the families whose homes were later demolished.
“It could’ve very easily been me in their shoes,” Nahum said.
But taking it a step further and barricading herself inside a home slated for razing, as is common at such evacuations, was not something the Kedumim resident identified with.
“I’m not about to start hitting soldiers… It always comes to that at those things,” she said.
“You also need to ask why these people moved there in the first place if the homes were not legalized,” added Englander, in a statement one might not have expected to hear from an Israeli resident of the West Bank.
While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.
Just because I live here doesn’t mean you can interpret every move I make as some grand ideological statement.
Englander was referencing the Amona outpost, which the High Court of Justice ruled had to be demolished due to its construction without the necessary permits on land belonging to Palestinians.
Glick quickly interjected, arguing that a considerable number of homes in the West Bank have not been legalized and that settlers are often forced to build first and receive authorization after the fact.
But Englander and a number of the other teens present did not seem wholly convinced.
Respect, but suspect
After the young adults mentioned their Palestinian neighbors in passing a number of times, they were asked to expound on the relationship.
“Respect, but suspect,” Ayala said, quoting an old Hebrew phrase as most members of the group nodded their heads in agreement.
Vetshtein was the only one to say he had a Palestinian friend, a young man he worked with at the local swimming pool.
“By us, there is more interaction, said Sela of Kibbutz Gilgal. “It’s not like we visit one another’s houses, but I worked at a department store with someone who is Palestinian and we would frequently joke around.”
“And you trusted him 100 percent?” asked Englander.
“Yes, but there was nothing really I had to trust him with. We were just working together,” explained Sela.
Glick said every so often he comes across Palestinian shepherds from neighboring villages who invite him to their homes for coffee.
“In the end I cannot go because it is dangerous,” he said.
Asked if they viewed it as similarly dangerous for Palestinians to visit their own communities, the teens were more split.
“Every group has their extremes,” Nahum said.
Taking issue with the remark, Glick asserted that far more Jewish lives have been lost in terror attacks than Palestinian ones.
The limited interaction with Palestinians that the young adults described predictably informed their perceptions on the likelihood of peace.
Referring to a Talmudic dictum, Englander said the conflict between the two peoples is rooted in the basis of “Esau hates Jacob.”
While Glick rejected the notion that the discord between Israelis and Palestinians is predetermined, he said it would not be solved by two leaders coming together and shaking hands on the White House lawn.
“This war is not being fought by two armies. You have terror and hatred coming from the other side that is deeply rooted. Therefore, peace will only come from the ground up,” he argued.
As for compromise, the teens were convinced they had nothing to give.
“What compromise?” asked Nahum plainly. “The fact that they live together with us in much better circumstances than they would in the other countries in this region is a compromise in and of itself.”
The kids are alright
Despite the bleak prognosis, the high school graduates did not appear despondent regarding the current state of affairs beyond the Green Line nor their plans to return in the future.
“We live normal lives here just like everyone else,” Vetshtein declared.
The teens urged Israelis not to buy into some of the stereotypes used to describe life in the West Bank.
“None of us lives on some hilltop in the middle of nowhere,” Nahum quipped.
“Don’t think that we’re suffering out here. It really is quite good for us,” added Hasson.
“And the view is incredible!”