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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Illegal Settlement of Shilo in the West Bank

Highway to S-Hell-o II

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AS I walked for the bus I passed three teenage girls. They were dressed “modestly”, in long skirts and cover-all tops. They smiled shyly at me, and as I walked on I could hear them giggling.

This happens to me all the time in Nablus. Foreigners are a real novelty here. Those who do make it past the Israeli security people – who have a habit of denying entry to anyone who tells them they are planning to come to the West Bank, for whatever reason – to the West Bank are often deterred from venturing to Nablus because of the checkpoints and, sometimes, scare stories. And the Nabulsis themselves rarely stray out of Nablus to meet foreigners, again because of all the checkpoints (and, probably, now, the expense – a shared taxi to Ramallah may cost only about two quid one way, but that’s becoming a lot of money for some people here!).

But this time I think the girls were giggling because I was scandalously dressed, in a knee-length skirt and short-sleeved shirt.

You see, these girls were residents of Shilo, the settlement about 10 miles from Nablus. Apart from the fact that they will be used to having foreigners in Shilo because many of their neighours – and possibly their own parents – will be “foreign”Jews who have immigrated to Israel under the Right of Return, these Jewish girls can leave Shilo any time to encounter foreign visitors and expats. Not only can they go practically anywhere in the West Bank, apart from the handful of tiny areas (supposedly) controlled by the Palestinian Authority, they can travel across the length and breadth of Israel too, including to the places popular with foreign tourists, from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee, from Tel Aviv to Eilat. Basically, if you are a Palestinian resident of occupied Nablus you rarely get to travel more than a handful of miles, but if you are a (Jewish) resident of a nearby settlement – which is, according to the Geneva Conventions but Israel disregards this, a war crime – you can go pretty much wherever you like…

Unless you’d been told otherwise you probably wouldn’t realise you were mixing with war criminals in Shilo (right). It looks almost like a middle-class small new town, all comfortable brick homes spilling down the hillsides, kids’ toys, bicycles, balconies and patio sets. Even the Star of David flags fluttering everywhere don’t look too sinister – until you think about why they are there.

The home-grown website, , makes it all look postively welcoming, especially the section “A Collection of People who Live, Work and Create Together”. A fair few of these people seem to be in traditionally caring/sharing jobs – therapists, say, or artists or kindergarten teachers, or religious instructors.

But then you find the bit on the website about Shilo being all about “living together as Jews and building Eretz Yisrael [defined by the Zionist Dictionary as a “Jewish homeland to be established in the general area of Palestine]” and it all becomes rather less welcoming – if you’re a Palestinian Muslim or Christian, anyway.

Speak to settlers, as one journallist I knew did, not in Shilo, but the mindset is the same across the West Bank, and you learn that even the ones that believe it would be OK for Palestinians to stay in Eretz Yisrael (rather than be driven out to some unspecified place, as the others believe) say that the Palestinians could only stay if they accepted that nothing counts in Eretz Yisrael apart from Jews and Judaism.

Are the settlers prepared to use violence, lie, cheat or steal to get their own way?
Talk to Palestinians and international observers in, say, Hebron, or Yanun, a village near Nablus, and they will say they are – and they have the gunshot wounds, dogbite scars and bruises to prove it. Yes, I admit there have been incidents of Palestinians attacking settlers, but these are far, far outnumbered by settler attacks on Palestinians.

And as for the settlers of Shilo, well, according to the website, the Israeli Government didn’t approve of settlement in Shilo (dunno why cos it’s sanctioning settlements practically everywhere else!), so the first settlers pretended to be archaeologists working on the archaeological site there. There’s something else to think about: the settlers of Shilo have got away with creating a community for at least 230 families across two hillsides that contravenes international law, but let a Palestinian build one home without permission from the Israeli authorities (which is almost impossible to obtain if you are Palestinian) and the police will bulldoze it (above)…

I’m sure many of the people who settle for “ideological” reasons are genuine, that they do feel they are doing God’s work in reclaiming the Promised Land for the Jews, but they are still breaking international law – big time. According to Article 43 of the 4th Geneva Convention, an occupying power must not transfer its population into the occupied state; the Israeli authorities try to wangle out of this, but international legal opinion is against them!

Obviously, there’s no mention of this on, which, of course, wasn’t set up for me to have a pop at, but to attract more oleh (Jews immigrating to Israel under the Right of Return) to settle there.

Much is made of the great facilities: FIVE synagogues, two medical centres, shops, a dental clinic, occupational therapy clinic, shops, sports facilities.

“Yehuda and Shomron Yesha [settlements in Judea and Samaria, the settlers’ name for the West Bank] is very attractive to new immigrants from all over the world for a variety of reasons,” boasts the website.

“The close-knit relationships prevalent in Yesha's rural communities are a partial compensation for the parents or children or other family members that many olim [immigrants] left behind in the "old country." The beautiful physical surroundings and the reasonable prices of housing are also advantageous. “

Aren’t Yesha great? Unless you are Palestinian…

The website also makes great play of another facility – the “successful Hesder Yeshiva, with close to two hundred students, under the auspices of the Army, the government, and Rosh Yeshiva Rav Michael Brum.”

Now I really can’t be arsed contacting the Israeli authorities for confirmation of the above statement, and there’s isn’t really much point anyway as they never reply to “difficult” questions, but if this statement is true (and I’ve no reason to believe it isn’t), it highlights the hyposcrisy of the Israeli authorities’ approach to settlers and settlements.

A hesder yeshiva is basically a school that combines religious studies with military service. In one way it makes sense: the Israel authorities claim that that the nightmare network of checkpoints, roadblocks and so on that riddles the West Bank, and the military posts that scar practically every hilltop not occupied by a(n illegal) settlement or the odd Palestinian community, are there not to make life a misery for the Palestinians but to protect the settlers. So it is only right that young people from the settlements – like those who live in Israel – should serve in the army.

But isn’t it gloriously ironic: last month the Israeli authorities made sure the world’s media were on hand to cover the eviction of settlers from two houses in Hebron (see post of August 7), because the settlers were occupying the houses illegally.

But that same government is involved with a hesder yeshiva based in a far bigger settlement – Shilo – and, apparently, doing bugger all about the other 450,000 or so settlers in the West Bank, whose presence is no more legal than that of the recently-ejected settlers of Hebron.

I guess the Shilo hesder yeshiva could always train its students to evict themselves…

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