Friday, August 28, 2009

"Dr. Levenstein, I Presume?"

This introduction:

Jason Koutsoukis is the first journalist, foreign or Israeli, to enter the occupied West Bank settlement of Kida. He reports on what he found there.

reminded me of Stanley meeting Livingstone in Darkest Africa.

It goes on:-

Settlers stake out a life on conflict's edge

THE landscape surrounding Kida [Kayda actually], a tiny illegal outpost in the occupied West Bank, is both rocky and fertile, with untamed hills of heather and thistle divided by neat vineyards.

Its 35 portable homes - plain white boxes sitting on concrete pylons - are divided by strips of freshly laid asphalt and look east towards the Jordan Valley.

''When Israelis ask me where I live, I tell them I live in the centre of Israel,'' says Tzofia Dorot, 30, the daughter of a Chicago-born rabbi.

Dorot is a settler, one of the Israelis whom the US Government and world opinion have defined as a major obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

Home to more than 90 children, Kida is like an isolated patch of idealised 1950s suburbia built on the edge of a wild, treeless frontier.

The women stay at home, or work part time. Front doors are left wide open. Children roam freely, seemingly looking after each other.

Despite recent talk of a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank, Michal Chayat and her husband Matanya moved into Kida two weeks ago.

Their home is shining white, like a new refrigerator lying on its side. Matanya has already managed to add a pine deck.

''It's a very special place, a different place, and we wanted to be part of it,'' Ms Chayat says.

For the men, the day starts at Kida's half-built synagogue. After morning prayers they vanish to their jobs as army officers, policemen, teachers and lawyers in Israel.

With the nearest shop six kilometres away [a bit less], Kida doesn't attract many visitors. To go there you need a reason.

Strangers represent danger. The things that people fear most are Israeli troops coming to evacuate the settlement, or Palestinians.

To drive into Kida, one must pass through several private checkpoints and gates that help secure five other settlements in the area. [not if you come from another direction]

Innately suspicious of attention, particularly from the international media, the residents of Kida met to discuss the possibility of allowing The Age into their midst for several days.

''Our hope is that you present us as you see us,'' Ms Dorot says.

Also in Kida are the handsome couple of Chemda and Haim Ya'acobi, who live here with their four children.

Ms Ya'acobi, 28, is a smartly dressed mother of four who works two days a week as a social worker assisting at-risk teenagers. Her husband, 31, a recent graduate in industrial engineering, jogs most evenings and spends afternoons on the Sabbath studying the Torah.

Their four sons, Re'em, 6, Yeshurun, 4, and two-year-old twins Tsuria and Arbel, are inquisitive, polite and energetic.

As you would expect of any house delivered on the back of a truck, it's a tight fit for a family of six. One bedroom for the twins, another for the two older children, and a third bedroom for their parents. With a bathroom and kitchen and living space, that's the entire house.

At least they now have electricity. The Ya'acobis spent their first few years in Kida using a generator to power one household appliance at a time.

The presence of an English-speaker at their dinner table arouses the children's curiosity, among other reasons for its rarity.

No journalist, foreign or Israeli, has been allowed entry to Kida before. The residents feel misunderstood, objects of preconceived notions.

''I grew up in the city, and I always knew it wasn't for me, that I need space,'' Ms Ya'acobi says, extending her arms wide towards the empty valley beyond her walls.

''People in Tel Aviv, they don't know us. They don't know who we are, or understand the life we have.''

On the eve of the Sabbath, Mr Ya'acobi gathers his children together and slings an M-16 assault rifle over his shoulder, before heading 30 metres down the road to the synagogue.

Later, during dinner, there is a knock on the door. It's a neighbour who has just finished his shift on security patrol and is returning the weapon. Mr Ya'acobi's shift was scheduled for the early hours of the morning. ''We are always under threat here,'' he says.

Adamantly opposed to giving up territory that is at the heart of Jewish history, Mr Ya'acobi denies any Palestinian right to the land of the occupied West Bank.

To him the very idea of a pre-existing Palestinian nation is not supported by historical fact, and the word Palestinian is little more than the invention of British bureaucrats.

''First of all, there is no 'Palestinian' people, no such thing as Palestine. They [the Palestinians in the West Bank] belong in Jordan,'' he says.

But he is quick to articulate a difference between his family and the more hard-core religious Zionists. ''The settlers who beat Arabs? They should be sitting in jail,'' he says.

While the Ya'acobis may passionately oppose a Palestinian state, he says he would respect the law if he was ordered to leave.

About 30 kilometres north of Kida, a cluster of Jewish settlements has grown to form a ring around the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Residents of these settlements are known for their fanaticism, and for launching repeated attacks on nearby Palestinian villagers and their crops [all without provocation? not that I justify senseless violence].

Built into the side of Mount Gerizim is an illegal outpost known as Bracha B, an offshoot of Bracha, the parent settlement that sits at the top of the mountain. Untidy, almost squalid, Bracha B emits an aggressive intensity the moment you enter. The people who live here are openly hostile to intruders. Journalists are chased away, more often than not their cars pelted with rocks and their tyres punctured.

One of Bracha B's friendlier residents, Menachem Ben Shakhar, teaches at a religious school for children and wears the uniform of the religious Zionist movement: a crocheted skullcap, long red earlocks and beard, sandals and a flannel shirt.

At 32, he already has five children, and his wife Michaela is pregnant with their sixth.

Such is his relaxed appearance that Mr Ben Shakhar could be mistaken for a hippie were it not for his belligerent views.

His is a triangular culture that admits no outsiders. ''It is between me, God and the Land of Israel. There is nothing else,'' he says.

When it comes to Israel dismantling outposts such as Bracha B to make way for a Palestinian state, he talks about the price that will be paid.

For every settler's home that is demolished, he says, the settlers will respond by randomly attacking Palestinians and destroying their property.

He was involved in one such revenge attack last week, when he and groups of settlers ''beat up some Arabs'' at the nearby Itamar junction.

Asked about settler attacks on nearby Palestinian villagers and their property, he shrugs his shoulders. ''So what?'' he says. ''I don't want peace. We are fighting a war.''

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