Conflict among Israelis over settlements

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. President Obama's special envoy for the Middle East met with Palestinian leaders today. Afterwards former Senator George Mitchell said the US wants a prompt resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. One big problem with that scenario is the public rift between American and Israeli officials over Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The US is pressing for Israel to halt construction on the settlements but as The World's Matthew Bell reports from Jerusalem, this is a very thorny issue in Israel.

MATTHEW BELL: Drory Bar-Levav works three phones at once in his tiny office in central Jerusalem. He runs a small delivery service.

DRORY BAR-LEVAV: I'm not yet like FedEx.

BELL: Bar-Levav's dusty boots are a hint that he's no city slicker. He lives on the other side of the old Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. About seven years ago Bar-Levav and one other settler established a new Jewish community. It's a cluster of several mobile homes and it's one of about two dozen illegal outposts in the West Bank whose residents face possible eviction. If Israel does send the bulldozers to knock down his home Bar-Levav says it will be a flat out betrayal.

BAR-LEVAV: Prime Minister Arik Sharon, he phone us in the evening that we established the place; he himself called us and blessed us.

BELL: Bar-Levav says the former Israeli leader made a public appeal for more Jewish settlements in the West Bank starting in 2001.
BAR-LEVAV: He said go and catch the hills. Every hills that we won't catch won't be us. There, he said it, the prime minister. The prime minister.

BELL: About 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank. The current Israeli government says these people should be allowed to live normal lives. But Israelis in general have mixed feelings about the settlements. On the morning I stopped by the owners of this Jewish-run sheep and goat farm in the West Bank got a call from someone in Tel Aviv. It was a potential buyer. But when he found out where the farm was located?

NAHARA YOTAVAT: He said that he don't want to buy from me because I live in the territories.

BELL: Nahara Yotavat helps run the farm with her father.

YOTAVAT: And that's it. He was very nice. Yeah he said sorry and I'm sorry, very sorry. I said it's okay. It's no, no problem.

BELL: Does this happen a lot?

YOTAVAT: No. No not at all. But a lot of people that ask me where I live I said that I live in Nok Dim in the territories so they like look at me a little bit like I'm a monster.

BELL: Yotavat says not all settlers are extremists who hate Palestinians. In fact she and her father say they work closely with Arabs and actually get along with them quite well. Gadi Yotavat fell in love with the desert after he served here in the Israeli army in the 1970s. He sports a very un-military look nowadays though. Yotavat's long, straggly hair creeps out from under a baseball cap that reads Texas. I asked him if President Obama's demand that settlers like him freeze all construction and growth is giving him a headache.

TRANSLATOR: I don't really care about him.

BELL: He's not changing your life?

TRANSLATOR: As my dad used to say we went through a lot of presidents we'll go through this one too. And there's a song in Hebrew that says if we got through Pharaoh we'll get through this.

BELL: Yotavat is opposed to giving the Palestinians their own state in the West Bank. Look what happened in Gaza he says referring to the Hamas takeover there in 2007. And besides many Jewish settlers would say the bottom line is that God gave this land to the Jews.


BELL: The rabbi of the settlement where Yotavat lives is Yuval Dorani. We take in the view behind his house. The tomb of King Herod looms off to one side and beyond are the desert hills of the biblical land of Judea.

TRANSLATOR: Obviously the view is breathtaking and very impressive but when you come here and you know that this land and this view is the bed of Judaism it means something because Judaism happened here. This is where it in actuality took place.

BELL: The religious significance to this land means something to Gershom Gorenberg too. He's originally from Los Angeles and moved to Israel with his family in the late 1970s. Gorenberg is an outspoken opponent of the West Bank settlements. He believes Israel needs to stop expanding them and eventually give up some settlements as part of a deal that finally brings about the creation of a Palestinian state. But Gorenberg says this is a wrenching issue for Israelis.

GERSHOM GORENBERG: This is incredibly difficult for Israel. You're talking about a situation in which there is a very, very clear risk of violence between Israelis. And civil conflict is far more frightening to people than dealing with an outside enemy.

BELL: That's the unspoken fear Gorenberg says. Even if only a very small number of extreme settlers are thought to be willing to use violence if the Israeli government does decide to evict them. And yes Gorenberg says every Jewish kid grows up learning how that land is part of Jewish history. But he still supports the Obama administration's decision to pressure Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to freeze all settlement growth and seek a two-state solution with the Palestinians. For his part Netanyahu has opposed both of those things and so have his right-wing supporters. The Israeli prime minister is expected to lay out his own vision for making peace with the Palestinians in a speech this weekend. The biggest question will be where does he come down on the issue of West Bank settlements? For The World I'm Matthew Bell in Jerusalem.