MAOZ ESTHER, West Bank — The dog was playing in the yard. A teenage girl inside was boiling a pot of water to make rice on the kitchen stove. Another was studying for her high school matriculation exam at the dining room table.
One could have walked into the small home in the central West Bank outpost of Maoz Esther and simply assumed the children’s parents were out at work. But that was not the case, as the girls’ parents live elsewhere.
While the scene itself may have seemed prosaic, to the inhabitants of the shed-sized isolated hilltop home, unfolding was nothing short of the “most critical Zionist project of our time.”
Maoz Esther is not the only outpost beyond the Green line occupied exclusively by religious, ultra-nationalist teenagers, but it is the only one to feature an all-female home. The residents — six girls between the ages of 14 and 17 — have effectively thrown a wrench into the image of the yarmulke-wearing boys with long, matted sidelocks that often comes to mind upon mention of the term “hilltop youth.”
The long-skirted female denizens of the outpost don’t deny that their living situation is unique. But to them, gender is not the issue at hand; rather the obligation of all Israelis — men and women — to expand and entrench Jewish presence throughout the entirety of the biblical Land of Israel.
“We’re not here to encourage female activism. But if until now women thought that they didn’t have a role in building the land, they were sorely mistaken,” said Shalhevet Goldstein.
The Times of Israel sat down with the 16-year-old and several of her housemates in the cramped dining room of their Maoz Esther home earlier this month. During the conversation, the girls opened up about life in the outpost, how they came to drop everything and move there, and what their parents think of their decision.
The young women were adamant that they not be presented as a “bunch of crazies” and described themselves as a modern-day extension of the early Zionists, who on occasion operated outside the law in order to establish the State of Israel.
Acting on their education
Maoz Esther was founded in 2006 in memory of Esther Galia, a 48-year-old Israeli mother of seven who was killed in a drive-by shooting attack at the West Bank’s Rimonim junction four years earlier.
Over its short history, the outpost has consisted of only a handful of makeshift homes and structures scattered across adjacent hilltops, less than a half-mile north of the Kochav Hashachar settlement.
Buildings in Maoz Esther have been demolished by security forces well over two dozen times due to the outpost’s establishment on private farming land belonging to the nearby Palestinian village of Kafr Malik, according to Defense Ministry land registration documents.
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, sometimes on private Palestinian land, such as Maoz Esther.
The difficult living conditions have prevented young inhabitants from staying on a more than intermittent basis. But as Goldstein tells it, a group of boys decided to test that trend two years ago and began living on the outpost all year round. This led her and two other girls to build their own home and do the same.
“At first I was hesitant about leaving the ulpana [religious all-girls high school], but eventually I realized what was demanded of me, and that if I did not answer the call, there would be no girls in the [outpost],” she said.
“I saw a disturbing reality in which the State of Israel refuses to decide whether this land [in the West Bank] truly belongs to us, and I needed to do my part to ensure that it will not be given to anyone else,” said Goldstein.
“This is exactly what we’re taught at home and in school.”
She recalled how her parents in Kochav Hashachar had initially been hesitant about the idea of her leaving home at such a young age. However, they were reassured when the settlement’s rabbi, Ohad Krakover, endorsed the idea.
The number of girls in the house has doubled over the past two years, thanks in no small part to two of them recruiting their younger sisters. During breaks in the school year, they said their home in Maoz Esther hosts up to 15 teenagers — a mind-boggling number, given how small the home is.
The girls demonstrated to this reporter that by folding up the dining room table and covering the wooden floor with mattresses, they could fit that number cozily. “If there’s not enough room, someone can sleep under the stars,” one of them said, pointing to the stack of browned, beat-up mattresses just outside the home.
Getting by with a little help from their friends
Although they live on their own, the girls were quick to point out that they’re not as isolated as it may seem.
They described Maoz Esther as a “neighborhood” of Kochav Hashachar, where they buy groceries every couple of days and where a number of them work part-time jobs at the daycare and local shops.
“We’re constantly consulting with rabbis, teachers and adults from the area,” said Yerushalayim Gozlan, who joined her friends for the interview. The 19-year-old had lived in the girls’ home for a year before getting married two months ago and building a new house with her husband on an adjacent hilltop.
Unlike Goldstein, though, she waited until after finishing high school to move to Maoz Esther.
“My parents didn’t want me to drop out. They thought that if I came here, I’d end up in Cats’ Square,” Gozlan said, referring to a downtown Jerusalem spot known for attracting teenage consumers of drugs and alcohol.
“But after I arrived, they saw how serious it is here and how we’ve learned to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other,” she continued. “I’ve discovered truth here, and it is our responsibility to wake up the Jewish people to this truth.”
Gozlan’s younger sister T’heeya followed in her footsteps and now lives in the girls’ house as well.
“We’re not alone here,” T’heeya said, while washing dishes at the kitchenette in the corner of the house. She pointed out how after a demolition action last month at the outpost, residents of Kochav Hashachar and surrounding settlements raised over NIS 15,000 ($4,407), allowing the Maoz Esther inhabitants to rebuild their homes within days.
“After the demolition, they came with food and offered to let us stay by them. They’re also frequently donating items and funds throughout the year,” said Goldstein.
The girls have also recently been able to enjoy running water, thanks to pipes extended from one of the homes on the edge of Kochav Hashachar. This has meant the ability to build the kitchen sink — where T’heeya was working on dinner — in addition to a shower and toilet (that shakes the entire house with every flush).
While the home isn’t connected to electricity, the girls get by with a generator that allows them to charge their phones, and a number of solar-powered ceiling lights.
‘The positive side of settlement’
However, much of their time is spent outside the house. The girls boasted of a rigorous schedule that starts every day at 5:30 a.m. with each of them waking up to pray outside on their own.
From 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., they say the home turns into a fully functioning seminary where they learn religious texts, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in lessons delivered by rabbis and teachers from the surrounding settlements.
In the afternoon, the girls split off, with some of them working in nearby Kochav Hashachar and others tending to the hilltop’s vineyard or other agricultural projects aimed at stretching Maoz Esther’s imaginary borders as far as possible.
“We’re interested in the positive side of settlement — not in police and price tags,” said Goldstein, referring to the hate attacks targeting Palestinians and their property that are sometimes carried out by young ultra-nationalist activists from outposts like Maoz Esther.
The girls said that reactions from friends and relatives to their lifestyle range from “Wow, you’re absolutely crazy,” to “Wow, good for you.”
“Everyone appreciates what we’re doing at some level, but there are also those who might not entirely agree with the path we’re taking,” said Gozlan, citing concerns over outposts being built without permits on land not registered to the state.
Asked about the status of the land on which Maoz Esther sits, Goldstein said she was not sure, but added that in principle she has never tried to find out “because it all belongs to us anyways.”
While the girls lamented the government’s inability to enact its sovereignty over the entirety of the West Bank, they said that in the meantime, Maoz Esther was doing the state’s dirty work.
“The Bedouin used to graze their flock here, but ever since we’ve arrived they’ve understood that this land is ours and have stopped coming here,” said Goldstein.
Pointing to the Bedouin hamlet just below Maoz Esther, Goldstein said, “I have no problem with them being there as long as they accept that this land belongs to Jews.”
Khidr al-Amireen, a Bedouin shepherd who lives in that 22-family encampment called Ein Samia, told The Times of Israel that while many settlers in the area had made his life difficult, the girls in Maoz Esther were not among them.
“They don’t come here and cause us problems, and we don’t go there,” he said, contrasting the Maoz Esther residents with other settlers around Ein Samia, who al-Amireen said block him from grazing his sheep on “99 percent” of the land he once had access to.
But while the Maoz Esther residents said they have yet to experience a confrontation with the surrounding Palestinian populations, one ex-senior Shin Bet official dismissed the notion that the girls were not vulnerable.
“Just because [an incident of violence] hasn’t happened until now doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually,” said Avi Arieli, who headed the security agency’s so-called “Jewish Division” from 2009 to 2013.
In that capacity, he worked regularly with leaders in the national religious community to reintegrate hilltop youth back into government-run educational programs.
Arieli expressed his dismay “that there are rabbis in Israel who say it’s okay for a group of girls to live on their own on a hilltop.”
“With boys, I worry about what will happen to the other side,” he said, citing a 2015 terror attack in which a young far-right activist from an outpost near Shiloh hurled a firebomb into a home in the Palestinian village of Duma, killing a couple and their 18-month baby who were sleeping inside.
He admitted to being less concerned about such violence from female hilltop youth, but went on to describe what he believed could be a plausible scenario in which one of their surrounding Palestinian neighbors might try and threaten them, leading the girls to decide that they “must act in order to show deterrence.”
“They’re blinded by ideology,” Arieli said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a security official told The Times of Israel that while all children are required to remain in government-mandated educational programs through the age of 18, law enforcement is unable to act against violators after the age of 16.
“We also prefer to address this question through the lens of education. Rather than sending an officer to the outpost, we send a psychiatrist or a teacher to prepare them for their matriculation exam,” he said.
The girls in Maoz Esther took great offense at being classified “at-risk youth” by the current and former security officials.
“All of us here are completing our matriculation exams. How does that make us ‘at-risk?’ We’re self-disciplined and wake up every morning at 5:30 a.m. How is that ‘at-risk?'” asked Goldstein.
“It’s pathetic to tell those who are not wasting their time with parties and video games that they’re the ones who are ‘at-risk,'” she continued. “I’m not working for myself. I’m working as a soldier for the Jewish people and the land. That’s the least ‘at-risk’ thing there is.”
Settlement doesn’t see gender
Asked why they thought more girls haven’t joined them in their effort, the Maoz Esther residents lamented that many of their friends have “used the fact that they are girls as an excuse.”
“They say, ‘Because I’m a girl my parents might think doing something like this is inappropriate,'” Gozlan said. “But what’s inappropriate? We’re not going out and fighting with bows and arrows. We’re just living here.”
Goldstein pointed out that those young women not interested in taking part in the building aspects of settlement can contribute in many other ways.
“I didn’t like playing house as a kid. I liked playing in the mud and being active, so that has translated to me being more involved in building things here. But other people are different, and we need everyone — including those who want to cook and clean,” she said.
“We’re not feminists and we’re not trying to make a statement that specifically girls should be doing this. It is simply the job of the entire nation,” Gozlan said.
“There’s definitely a difference between men and women. But how can you build [settlements] without us?” she asked.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.