Drama therapist Yael Drori left bustling Jerusalem 16 years ago to live in an unrecognized outpost in the Israeli occupied West Bank. As a youth, she was active in the Israeli settler movement supporting new communities in the West Bank and protesting against Israeli disengagement from Jewish communities in Gaza.
She moved to the West Bank out of ideology, but what she found was a sense of community. As the mother of a severely disabled child, she teared up explaining that her neighbors had become her “family.”
Last week, Drori, 38, celebrated when the settlement of Givat Harel became one of nine to be recognized retroactively by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
“I thought it was something they promised but it would never happen,” she said. “It was a good surprise that made me joyful.”
Violence has surged in the West Bank in the past year with frequent clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinians. Authorization of the settlements, which the government said was a response to Palestinian attacks, sparked UN denunciation.
Along with Gaza and East Jerusalem, the Palestinians seek the occupied West Bank for a state. Most world powers view settlements as illegally built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war with Arab powers.
Israel disputes that and cites biblical, historical and political links to the West Bank, as well as security interests.
The first to publish the decisions by Netanyahu’s security cabinet were two pro-settler politicians whose inclusion in the coalition he built after a Nov. 1 election had already signaled a hard-right tack.
In a sharp move, the UN Security Council issued a formal statement on Monday expressing “deep concern” about the Feb. 12 retroactive outpost recognition, saying the decision was “dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines.”
The statement was the first action the United States, with veto powers, has allowed the body to take against its ally Israel in six years.
Dream come true
According to Peace Now, an NGO which monitors settlement expansion, 132 settlements have been established in the West Bank with another 147 outposts not considered legal under Israeli law. In recent years, settlers have erected scores of outposts without government permission. Some have been razed by police, others authorized retroactively.
While Western powers found the authorization unsettling, residents say it simply shows Israeli policy is catching up with facts on the ground which are changing, one structure at a time.
Givat Harel, established in 1998, is now home to some 90 families. Rocky terrain peaks out between patches of grass in the majestic hills. Winding high above the green valley below, the road up to the outpost is flanked by crops and signs advertising the community’s winery.
An hour outside Jerusalem, the lack of cars on the highway leaves a void filled with clean air and the sound of chirping birds echoing between the mountains. For the residents, Israeli authorization was nothing short of a dream come true.
“We didn’t think it would happen so quickly,” said resident Morya Tassan Michaeli. “When we suddenly realized, it was 10 or 11 o’clock at night and the excitement and elation emerged and the next day we gathered and danced and sang.”
Power outages and basic infrastructure gaps are part of life in a settlement built without government approval. Drori says she’s excited at the prospect of having an official postal address and paved sidewalks.
The streets of this community remain quiet during the day, most parents commute daily for work and high school children are often sent to boarding schools. Residents are now hopeful the recognition will lead to official bus routes, easier access and the ability to build and grow.
Palestinians say recognition and normalization of settlements will hinder US and Arab state peace efforts and lead to more tension and escalation.
‘This is our home’
Shirat Yulis, an architect and resident of Givat Harel, designs homes both in recognized and unrecognized communities where she says homeowners worry more about building something new. Recognition means prospective residents can take out a mortgage from a national bank.
“There’s no happier person than me today,” Yulis said. “I know that now people can enjoy their homes.”
In another triumph for the settler movement, a far-right Israeli cabinet minister formally gained responsibilities over Jewish settlements in the West Bank on Thursday that he said included bringing their legal status closer to that of communities within Israel.
Under the new division of powers, “legislation on all (settlement) civilian matters will be brought into line with Israeli law,” as opposed to being classified under the military.
Critics and human rights organizations say this normalizes the status of settlements. In practice for residents, it removes the need to go through military bureaucracy on matters of infrastructure and construction.
The clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli military won’t deter residents like Michaeli. She said there had been waves of violence her entire life.
“Fear doesn’t govern our lives,” Michaeli said. “This is our life and this is our home.”
“If they approve a few more settlements, I don’t think that will change anything in the calculation or thinking of the Palestinians,” said Bracha Kaplan, a social worker who moved to Givat Harel 10 years ago.
“The question is whether one needs to ask for recognition from the outside or believe in what one is doing.
“I raise my children to believe that this is our place and we don’t have another. If this is our home and we won’t have a partner for peace, then this is what we have.”