by Rory McCarthy
Early in the morning, Nadia Matar drove to the hills south of
Here, just a stone's throw from Palestinian homes and only a few minutes from the city of Bethlehem, Matar and her friends are intent on building a Jewish community, the next settlement outpost in the occupied West Bank.
It is a glaring challenge to the Obama administration, which is trying to halt all Israeli settlement growth as a precursor to renewed peace talks. But recent history suggests it is the highly-motivated settlers like Matar, 43, a mother of six born in
Tomorrow, the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu arrives in
Matar's goal is "redemption of the land". In her view, the land on which the Palestinian homes sit belongs by Biblical and historical right to the Jewish people and is, for now, "temporarily under Arab occupation". She is trying to build a "Jewish Shdema" and to prevent the land from remaining Palestinian. After the military evacuated the base there were plans, since shelved, to build a hospital for Palestinians. "They want more pieces of land that belong to the Jews. They want to take it away from us," Matar said.
This is a rare insight into how outposts get built: with determined settlers and eventually complicit Israeli authorities.
At first, after the army withdrew from the base three years ago, soldiers closed the area off and prevented all settlers from approaching. But the settlers sneaked in and kept coming. Eventually Matar, a leader of the group Women in Green, and her supporters convinced the military to allow them in just once a week, on a Friday. They cleaned the buildings up, painted over graffiti, tidied the rooms and held workshops and discussions. Sometimes they have stayed the night, sometimes they have been allowed to come twice a week and eventually, they believe, settlers will begin to live here.
Similar struggles take place every week on other hilltops across the
"At the beginning we fought against the army to come up here," said Matar. "But when they saw we were adamant they let us come on a Friday … But it's not enough for us. We don't want to ask permission to be in our homeland."
Now every time they come the army far from preventing them in fact provides them with security, deploying several soldiers and armoured vehicles but not interfering with their activities. In April the military also halted the construction of a Palestinian park, part funded by the
Already the settlers have produced a glossy brochure with architectural plans of the Shdema they would like to see: it has grassy lawns, lines of trees, a cultural centre and a small but thriving Jewish community.
On this day around 30 settlers of different ages gathered, among them several children, a rabbi and at least two women carrying discreetly holstered pistols. They sat in one room on plastic chairs as Tomer Karazi, 34, a rabbi with five children, discussed a Biblical text and the importance of building a new village in this Biblical land.
Later Karazi said he and his wife Hannah were ready to move from their home in the settlement of Nokdim to Shdema as soon as possible. "It's our duty not to escort the process of redemption from the outside but to be involved and active from the inside," he said. "We don't need to wait for things like water and electricity. And we really love the place. It's beautiful."
Then out came large tubs of white emulsion paint and several brushes and the group began painting over the grey concrete walls, stopping occasionally for glasses of water and slices of watermelon.
Yosef Ziggerman, 18, a settler from Efrat had been involved in several other, often unsuccessful, attempts to establish new outposts on nearby hills. "I believe every single piece is ours and I don't see many pieces of land as beautiful as this," he said. "We aren't doing anything crazy or fanatic. We're painting and making it look nice."
Several spoke of their frustration with other Israelis who enjoy the more secular lifestyle of cities like Tel Aviv or Eilat but who seemed not to understand or endorse the settlers' millenarian ideology and their effort to claim the
They described themselves as a frontline in a wider struggle against what they see as radical Islam, insisting that settler outposts protect the larger settlement blocs, which in turn protect Tel Aviv and
"People like to present us like crazy lunatics," said Matar. "But one day these people in the West will see. The Muslims are taking over there too. You better be on our side for your sake, but you guys in
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