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September 2, 2015 8:21 am

An Honest, First-Hand Look at Israeli Settlements

avatar by Yosef Kessler

Kfar Tapuach in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Photo: Facebook.

Kfar Tapuach in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Photo: Facebook.

On a cold and windy weekend in January, I traveled to Kfar Tapuach (population 800) in the heart of the West Bank, along with 30 other gap-year students. We were there as part of Jerusalem U’s Core18 Leaders Lab program, which prepared us to return to our college campuses as stronger and better-informed Israel activists.

This was just one part of a trip that exposed us to diverse views across the Israeli political spectrum. Earlier in the day, we had met with Yariv Oppenheimer, director of Peace Now, which is opposed to communities like this one.

The residents of Kfar Tapuach believe in reclaiming the hilltops of Samaria for the Jewish people, and walking in the footsteps of Abraham and Joshua. They live among hostile Arab neighbors in one of the most controversial and complicated regions of the world. Their Shabbat hospitality was as warm as their political views were extreme.

Talking to a number of residents, I got a glimpse of the religious settlers’ worldview: settlement and rebuilding of Israel is a biblical duty, and the capture of the West Bank during the Six Day War was a call from God to return to the holy regions of Judea and Samaria. After intensely lobbying the Israeli government, religious Zionists established the community of Ofra in 1975 and founded dozens of other communities in ensuing years, including Kfar Tapuach in 1978. Later, people were drawn to the area for other reasons: inexpensive housing and rare green space in Israel’s crowded heartland, as well as government subsidies.

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For the Kfar Tapuach residents we met, returning to the mountains of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and a sign that the redemption is near. They disagree strongly with detractors who argue that settlements are a barrier to peace. They contend that not only would evacuating defy the Torah, but in fact would be counterproductive to peace. They point to the failure of Israel’s past efforts: Leaving Gaza gave Hamas a base to fire rockets into Israel, and the Oslo Accords established a corrupt Palestinian Authority that led to the horrors of the Second Intifada.

The residents of Kfar Tapuach reject the argument that their presence subjugates West Bank Palestinians. They explain that Israeli settlements have brought infrastructure improvements to the area, including roads accessible to Palestinians and industrial zones that provide Palestinians more jobs and higher wages. They also note that only seven percent of West Bank land is being used, leaving plenty of room for both peoples to live as neighbors.

Although I repudiate some of the settlers’ hateful attitudes toward Arabs, I believe we must not ignore them. There is validity in some of the settlers’ arguments. Beneath their deep attachment to the West Bank, they understand the danger inherent in withdrawing from this area. However, annexation of the land is also not a viable solution. To me, neither Israel’s future nor the aspirations of the Palestinian people can be determined by the biblical yearnings of a few hundred thousand Jewish settlers.

My visit to Kfar Tapuach left me more confused about where I stand on settlements and the peace process, but with a better understanding of the complexities involved. I came away from the program better able to shine a light on the all too black-and-white picture of Israel and the settlements presented in the media.

Yosef Kessler, who grew up in the Bronx, just returned from a year living in Israel on the Nativ Program and will attend Hunter College through the Macaulay Honors Program in the fall.

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