US tourists visit the ‘total heaven’ of West Bank settlements

Arguing that settlements are underfunded by the Israeli government, a US-based charity takes American tourists on a day trip designed to show how they can help fill the gap and why they should

A One Israel Fund tour group visits the hills near Karnei Shomron in the West Bank (Eliyahu Kamisher)
A One Israel Fund tour group visits the hills near Karnei Shomron in the West Bank (Eliyahu Kamisher)

KARNEI SHOMRON, West Bank — On a warm afternoon around 48 kilometers (30 miles) from Tel Aviv, a bus filled with 51 American tourists is struggling to make its way up a steep dirt road. Thick bulletproof windows and armored plating put extra weight on the bus’s engine and brakes, which groan painfully as the mayor of Karnei Shomron speeds ahead in his white Toyota Prius.

At the top of the hill sits a massive Star of David, made of metal, that overlooks the surrounding settlements of Yakir and Nofim and the Palestinian village of Jinsafut. While many Americans flock to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the Passover holiday, these tourists are touring Jewish communities in the northern West Bank, biblically referred to as “Shomron” in Hebrew or “Samaria” in English.

The tours are led by One Israel Fund, a US-based charity founded in 1994 and dedicated to supporting Jewish settlements in the West Bank — to “enrich and enhance the lives of Jews in Judea and Samaria.” From security to schools, hospitals and senior centers, the One Israel Fund provides support for every aspect of Jewish life in the West Bank.

Natalie Sopinsky, the fund’s director of community development, thinks of the organization as a “Jewish Federation for Judea and Samaria.”

A metal Star of David near Karnei Shomron (Eliyahu Kamisher)
A metal Star of David near Karnei Shomron (Eliyahu Kamisher)

In Karnei Shomron, the One Israel Fund has sponsored a new state-of-the-art security center, which, according to the town’s mayor Yigal Lahav, has been essential in ensuring his town’s safety. Lahav contends the Israeli government does not adequately provide for the settlement’s security and social services. Among Lahav’s list of needs is a more easily accessible medical center and radar detection technology. Thus, outside money from groups like the One Israel Fund is filling the gap, allowing settlements to thrive in relative stability.

Despite the need for advanced security precautions, Lahav describes life in Karnei Shomron as “total heaven.” He tells the tour group how he “fell in love with the land, the people, the smell in the air” and of how the settlement plans to build more, notwithstanding political obstacles.

Eve Harow, the director of tourism of One Israel Fund, is a veteran settlement activist from Efrat and is leading today’s tour. She blends her personal connection to the land with right-wing political ideology, fun facts about the region and biblical references.

Overlooking Karnei Shomron (Eliyahu Kamisher)
Overlooking Karnei Shomron (Eliyahu Kamisher)

Although born and raised in New Jersey, Harow’s attachment to the West Bank, like that of many settlers, is rooted in the region’s historic Jewish presence. “I want to be a part of history,” Harow tells this reporter.

Eve Harow (Facebook)
Eve Harow (Facebook)

For Harow, every settlement is not a new or foreign implantation, but a continuation of Jewish life that was interrupted by exile over 2,000 years ago. “The world must understand that this land is our mother and our heart,” states Harow, “and she is blossoming before our eyes.”

Archeological sites that evidence Jewish history here are highlighted during the tour. In the settlement of Ma’ale Shomron, for instance, the group is shown what Harow contends were an ancient Jewish trading post and wine storage facility from the First and Second Temple periods.

“Jewish life was reestablished in Ma’ale Shomron… from the First Temple, the Second Temple, and now the third Temple,” says Harow, linking the ancient sites into a larger biblical saga.

Kedumin Assistant Mayor Raphaella Segal shows of a map of settlement communities in the West Bank (Eliyahu Kamisher)
Kedumim Assistant Mayor Raphaella Segal shows off a map of settlement communities in the West Bank. (Eliyahu Kamisher)

Continuing on to the settlement of Kedumim, founded in 1974 near the Palestinian city of Nablus, the group meets Assistant Mayor Raphaella Segal. For Segal, a long-time settlement activist, Kedumim represents the progress the settlement movement has had in achieving recognition and permanency. “We used to live in a bunch of trailers,” she states proudly. “Now we are a strong community.”

Segal’s modern home, with its sweeping view of the valley below, looks more like unremarkable Israeli suburbia than the perception of Israeli settlements at the forefront of conflict. However, now it is Segal’s daughters who are continuing the tradition by moving in to trailers in nearby settlement outposts, which Segal hopes will someday reach Kedumim’s level of development.

The mayor of Kedumim, Hananel Dorani, is a second-generation resident, and the recent birth of his granddaughter marks the fourth generation of his family in Kedumim. Unlike Karnei Shomron, Kedumim “has no security fence, because we do not want to establish a border for the community,” states Dorani.

Kedumim plans to expand; the only thing holding it back is obtaining the necessary permits from the Israeli government, he says.

It’s not clear if that will happen. The international community considers settlements illegal and Palestinians see the enterprise as encroaching upon land they claim for a future state.

Israel has maintained the land is disputed and continues to build homes in settlements across the West Bank, but each new construction permit is met with international pressure to halt building and return to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which have not been held since the last US-brokered effort collapsed amid mutual recriminations in spring 2014.

In the meantime more and more Israelis have made their way across the Green Line, many motivated by ideology, but some by relatively cheap housing prices in a suburban setting.

“I’ll buy two houses,” one of the visitors on today’s trip promises, semi-jokingly.

Dorani hopes Kedumim will continue to grow and become an integral part of Israel proper. He takes pride in the town’s recently completed water park, which has attracted Israelis and their children from inside the Green Line to visit the cascading pools. On this Passover vacation, the pools are packed with children yelling and splashing with colorful water toys.

Kedumin water park (Eliyahu Kamisher)
Kedumim water park (Eliyahu Kamisher)

Although a nearby Palestinian village is visible from the water park, Palestinians remain conspicuously absent from the water park festivities, illustrating the stark separation between the communities. “It’s better that everyone has their own facilities,” Segal says.

Especially amid a wave of Palestinian “lone wolf” terror attacks since last fall, fear of violence is an obvious deterrent to interaction. “If we went into the [Palestinian] village, we would be killed,” states Lahav.

On this tour, the separation from Palestinian people and viewpoints is maintained. While Palestinian towns and villages are periodically visible from the bus’s bulletproof windows, they are largely ignored — or, in one case, passingly referred to by Harow as a “very nasty Arab village.”

From Kedumim, the bus takes Route 60 past the settlement of Yitzhar and the Palestinian town of Sawiya onto the tour’s last stop, the Gva’ot Winery, perched on a rocky hilltop overlooking the settlement of Shiloh. From a fledgling settlement winery, Gva’ot now produces over 50,000 bottles annually and is sold internationally.

The fruity Cabernet Sauvignons and rich Merlots produced here are among Israel’s best, says chief winemaker Dr. Shivi Drori. “I am not a newcomer to this land, but a link in the chain,” he adds, looking out over the vines that hug the rolling hillsides.

Drinking wine at Gva’ot is presented to the group not simply as a sensuous pleasure, but as an act of support for this Jewish presence deep in the West Bank.

Some in the One Israel Fund tour group plainly appreciate this significance as they sip their Cabernet Sauvignon. “This is the center of the Hebrew nation,” says one man.

Drori says the harsh conditions of these hills actually make for delicious wine. “The best wines,” he says, “come from struggle.”

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