Driven by an ideology infused with both religious and nationalistic elements, many of the estimated 500,000 Jews living in the West Bank remain skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, the US initiative
A stone is being venerated by Christian tourists from Taiwan in the heart of the small Jewish-Israeli community of Beit El, located in the heart of the West Bank, which the Palestinians claim in its entirety as part of a future state.
At first glance, the scene appears totally unconnected to US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan.
But, when contextualized, it goes directly to the heart of the matter: namely, that many continue to attribute the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the inability, if not impossibility, of reconciling competing, religious-infused nationalistic aspirations.
In this respect, the Stone of Jacob is a symbol, featuring prominently in the Hebrew Bible’s recounting of God’s revelation to the second of Judaism’s three forefathers:
“Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” reads the Book of Genesis (Chapter 28).
Awakening from his dream, Jacob then proclaimed: “This is none other than the house of God [Beit El], and this is the gate of heaven!”
“This is a holy place,” Miri Factor, the head of Beit El’s tourism department, told The Media Line. “How do we know this? Abraham and Jacob were here, it is where they received the [covenant binding the Jewish people to God]. And behind you is a tree that is over 1,000 years old. There are very few of this kind in the region and it is one of the ways we identified where Beit El was,” she said.
The complexity of the issue can be further conceptualized perched atop an observation tower in Beit El, where Ramallah’s skyline is the dominant fixture of a backdrop no more than a handful of kilometers away. Just below, straddling a boundary invisible from the vantage point, are rows of homes belonging to some 1,000 Jewish families.
It could easily be confused for one contiguous city – without for a moment contemplating that, by contrast, the frame is of two distinct peoples, living separately, that remain technically at war – if not for the orange-red rooftops, not unlike those popular in California, that typify Jewish homes throughout the West Bank.
“As you can see, Beit El is a Jewish community that is encircled by many Arab places,” Factor noted from the tower. “So, when the Trump plan talks about keeping everyone in their place, that nobody would [be uprooted], what does this mean? Unless sovereignty is applied to the entire region, there will be one little Jewish community in an area full of enemies.
“This is not what we want,” Factor stressed. “We want normal lives.”
While emphasizing the importance of Beit El remaining under Israeli control, the town’s mayor, Shai Alon, believes that co-existence is possible. He experiences it every day.
“For years, Jews and Arabs have lived and worked in this territory side-by-side,” Alon told The Media Line. “What Trump has done, however, is to recognize that the Bible is correct – that the Jewish people belong in the land of Israel after returning here from 2,000 years [of exile]. He understands that our presence in the West Bank is not illegal. He understands that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem.
“This is why the government should apply its laws to Judea and Samaria,” Alon contended, invoking the biblical names for the regions encompassing the West Bank. “It is long overdue but never too late,” he said.
“Otherwise, why are we here?”
For many of the estimated 500,000 Israeli Jews living in the West Bank, this is the primary reason not only for their being, but also for their being there. It is why most of them promote the immediate application of Israeli sovereignty to dozens of Jewish communities scattered across the territory.
It is also why a fair amount of them reject President Trump’s peace plan, despite it envisioning Israel’s annexation of precisely those areas.
For some, the very notion of Palestinian statehood is a non-starter, not unlike Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The Palestinian leader rejected President Trump’s proposal out of hand, promising to relegate it to the “dustbins of history.”
Nevertheless, Jews living across the pre-1967 borders have been labeled “settlers,” replete with the negative connotations the colonial designation carries. Somewhat ironically, many Israeli Jews residing in the West Bank do, in fact, view themselves as pioneers; but whose purpose is not to usurp what is not theirs, but, rather, to reclaim what they believe is their God-given inheritance.
Hence, the importance of an otherwise inconspicuous rock.
Israel’s settlement enterprise was, unbeknownst to many, initiated by the left-wing Labor party in the aftermath of the 1967 war, during which the Jewish state captured the West Bank, including the eastern part of Jerusalem, from Jordan. Shimon Peres, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, who a year later shared for his efforts the Nobel Peace Prize with then-Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, was an original advocate for establishing Jewish communities in regions that had been acquired in the defensive war.
After Arab nations adopted the infamous “three noes” – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it – the argument in favor of populating the West Bank focused mainly on the perceived necessity of providing a vulnerable country with a larger security buffer.
Religious considerations were seemingly of lesser importance, demonstrated by Israel’s immediate decision upon taking control of Jerusalem’s Old City to grant Jordan custodianship over Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, which is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.
Today, the driving force behind the settlement movement is Israel’s growing national-religious cohort, represented in parliament by the ruling Likud party, Yisrael Beytenu party and, more ardently, by the Yamina political alliance headed by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.
The settlers’ political power has grown in parallel to their population. Much of this momentum can be traced back to the Second Intifada, the 2000-2005 Palestinian terror campaign defined by suicide bombings in Israeli public spaces. Despite Israel having erected a separation barrier that traverses much of the West Bank, rarely a month passes without an attack, be it a car-ramming or stabbing.
This has left a significant imprint on the nation’s collective consciousness and perhaps accounts for why a growing segment of Israel’s overall population opposes, on principle, the formation of a Palestinian state. A survey released this week by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 38% of Israelis reject President Trump’s peace plan based on these grounds alone.
The half-million Jews living in the West Bank constitute only about 1/12th of Israel’s total Jewish population.
The math is clear, the position is common.
Efrat is somewhat different.
The sprawling expanse of homes to about 15,000 Jews extends across West Bank hilltops some 20 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Along with other large cities beyond the Green Line – such as Maaleh Adumim and Ariel, for example – Efrat is in a portion of the West Bank that all parties ostensibly “understand” will, even in the event of a peace deal, always be a part of Israel.
“Efrat is located in the center of the Etzion bloc, which has a lot of significance as there were Jews who lived here prior to the establishment of the State of Israel [in 1948]. And the day independence was declared, the Jewish people here were either slaughtered or fell in battle or were taken into Jordanian captivity,” Efrat’s mayor, Oded Revivi, explained to The Media Line.
“So, in 1967, the people who came back were the widows and orphans of those who fought here before Israel’s creation.”
Revivi was among the Israeli delegation that traveled to Washington for the peace plan’s unveiling on Tuesday of last week.
“It was extremely exciting, and I think the vision has a lot of potential. It raises difficult and hard questions both on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. But the major aspect,” the mayor said, “is that it looks at the conflict in a completely different way and maybe that is what is needed to solve it.
“The issue of applying Israeli law to this region,” he continued, “is something that needs to be decided by the government, which won’t be able to make any decisions without the acceptance or cooperation of the American administration. While we were in the US, we thought that there was one specific attitude, but flying back we heard different declarations. We are still in the suspense of hearing exactly how [President Trump] envisions his plan proceeding,” Revivi added.
The confusion he refers to regards Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s backtracking on a vow to immediately apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and all Jewish communities located in the West Bank, saying instead that he will do so only if he wins the March 2 national election. Following the proposal’s release, Netanyahu promised to convene his cabinet to push through legislation annexing about 30% of the West Bank. However, the prime minister was seemingly caught off guard by pushback from the US administration, with Jared Kushner, the chief architect of the peace plan, making clear that Washington would not support such action until after the Israeli election.
Some 15 kilometers south of Efrat, the landscape is dramatically different.
Kiryat Arba is an isolated enclave of a few thousand Jews bordering Hebron, which is considered the “cradle” of Judaism and home to about 800 Jewish families living under heavy military protection. Residents of Kiryat Arba are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, including those in the nearby Balata refugee camp.
The town has a fortress-like quality to it. From afar, one could conceivably mistake it for an army outpost. From within, students go about their merry way, purchasing snacks from the supermarket during recess. At the exit of one of the town’s gates, there is a huge red sign familiar to Israelis: Enter at your own risk.
Kiryat Arba would be a dot in the heart of a future Palestinian state; one that would, according to the US peace plan, somehow remain under full Israeli sovereignty. To think about its future is to get into the nitty-gritty elements of a centurylong conflict. And to do so is to begin to understand why many, if not most, Israelis and Palestinians do not believe that peace is on the horizon.
And, moreover, why still others are fighting to prevent the actualization of President Trump’s plan.