The National / December 4, 2020
Rosie Scammell reports from Oranit in the West Bank on the less ideological wave of arrivals on occupied Palestinian land.
Sitting in her garden beside fruit trees and a house she designed herself, architect Roni Weingarten describes a tight-knit neighbourhood where her children are free to roam safely.
Along with thousands of other Israelis, she opted to live in a West Bank settlement for the lifestyle rather than out of ideological fervour.
“Everybody knows everybody, this street is very united. When somebody needs sugar or flour, or whatever, you go to your neighbour,” said Mrs Weingarten, resting on the patio while aubergines sizzled on the barbecue.
One of nearly 10,000 residents of Oranit, less than a half-hour drive from downtown Tel Aviv, she moved to the West Bank Jewish settlement nine years ago after having children.
“We said we would like them to grow up with a bit of nature around us, and we would like them to grow up in a place where community matters,” she told The National.
Much of the world sees [sic] the Jewish settlements as illegal under international law, a charge Israel denies. But this hasn’t stopped more than 440,000 Jewish settlers [plus 200.000 in East Jerusalem] moving to the occupied West Bank, according to Israeli NGO Peace Now, alongside around 3 million Palestinians.
“Israeli is imposing a deteriorating fait accompli in Palestine through settlement expansion,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said this week. The premier hit out at Israeli officials confiscating Palestinian land and restricting resources, as well as attacks by settlers on Palestinians.
Such violence is largely blamed on hardline settlers who believe they have a religious duty to live on the land, not on the far larger numbers of Israelis who are motivated to move to the West Bank for cheap housing.
While some settlers are hardliners who believe they have a religious duty to live on the land many just say they are motivated by affordable homes.
For Mrs Weingarten and her husband Amit, Oranit was close to family and far more affordable than similar towns inside Israel.
“It gave me the opportunity to design, plan and build my own house,” said the 46-year-old. “I could really invest in my dreams and see them growing.”
Mrs Weingarten’s daughter Rotem attended the kindergarten next door, where toddlers can be heard playing.
Now 10, Rotem and her 14-year-old brother Yair are having lunch while afternoon light floods the open-plan kitchen and living room. From an upstairs balcony, the family can see both Palestinian and Israeli land.
Oranit was established before Israeli authorities began constructing a West Bank barrier in the early 2000s, which the government said was a necessary security measure.
But rather than follow the internationally-recognised frontier, known as the Green Line, around 85 per cent of the barrier goes further into West Bank territory, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Numerous settlements in the West Bank now lie between the physical barrier and the unmarked Green Line, meaning Oranit residents do not need to pass through a checkpoint to reach Israel.
“This is why we do believe and feel like we live in Israel,” said Mrs Weingarten.
In addition to cheaper housing, Israel fuels the settlements with additional funds which can be used for projects such as roads, industry or education. Brian Reeves from Peace Now said such funding tops 1 billion shekels ($305m) annually.
“It’s money that other councils just don’t get,” he said, adding that settlement-building has been a mainstay of successive Israeli governments.
“It’s been a systematic attempt on both sides of the political aisle to normalise settlements,” he said.
In Oranit, trees adorn roundabouts, there are covered playgrounds and dog parks. The streets are clean and dotted with recycling bins, while some residents have hung Israeli flags over their fences.
“It’s so easy to live here,” said Mrs Weingarten.
Although she hopes that her children will stay in Oranit as adults, Mrs Weingarten said she would be willing [sic] to give up her home if such a step was part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“If someone tells me: ‘Listen, the land that you’re sitting on is not yours and you have to give it back’, but I’ll get peace in return, and prosperity for Israel, I’ll say OK, I’ll look for somewhere else to go,” she said.
There have been no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in recent years and a plan unveiled earlier this year by US President Donald Trump, drawn up with Israeli approval, was rejected by the Palestinians.
Washington’s initiative proposed annexing swathes of the West Bank, including the settlements, and ultimately creating a rump Palestinian state.
Settlement construction is seen as a threat to a two-state solution and “is one of the major obstacles to peace,” UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said in October.
But for Oranit’s mayor, Nir Bartal, the settlements are not to blame for the decades-long conflict.
“The barrier to peace is the refusal of Palestinians to acknowledge there is an Israeli, democratic, Jewish state on this land [sic],” he said.
Oranit residents rarely interact with Palestinians in the West Bank, who must seek permission from the Israeli authorities to harvest their olive trees growing between the settlement and the barrier. During this year’s harvest in the West Bank, the UN’s humanitarian agency reported “numerous cases” of Israeli forces impeding access to olive groves behind the barrier, including delaying the opening of some gates and preventing Palestinian farmers crossing with vehicles to reach their land.
“They come once a year, they take their olives, and we help them,” said Mr Bartal.
During this year’s harvest across the West Bank, the UN humanitarian agency reported “numerous cases” of Israeli forces impeding access to olive groves behind the barrier, including delaying the opening of some gates and preventing Palestinian farmers crossing with vehicles to reach their land
In Oranit, the trees sit behind a barbed wire fence and Mrs Weingarten says she greets the Palestinians during each harvest and, ultimately, wants the two communities to live peacefully side by side.
“I don’t hate the people who live there, behind the wall, I think they are people just like me,” she said.
“They want to get up in the morning, they want to feed their kids, they also want prosperity. They want to live their own lives.”
Rosie Scammell – editor