Living the American Dream in the West Bank

Hanging Out with Israel’s Illegal Homesteaders

By Kiera Feldman, Photos by Gillian Laub

In the VICE documentary Renegade Jewish Settlers, correspondent Simon Ostrovsky travels from Tel Aviv to the remote West Bank outposts where young Israelis squat for the sake of their heritage.

A little while back, photographer Gillian Laub visited the settlement of Hashmonaim—about 40 minutes northwest of Jerusalem. Residents of Hashmonaim enjoy manicured lawns, top-notch schools, and panoramic views of the surrounding hillsides. There’s even a baseball diamond by the entrance, just past the guardhouse. 

Nearly half of Hashmonaim’s 2,600 settlers are from the New York area. With the Ben-Gurion Airport a convenient 22-minute drive away, many residents actually keep their white-collar American jobs, working remotely and commuting back as needed. Prospective settlers receive a handy FAQ sheet: “Is this area over the ‘Green Line?’ ” reads one question. “Geographically and tax-wise, yes,” the sheet explains. “Security-wise and politically, no.” In other words: Yes, this settlement is technically illegal according to international law. But because it’s guarded by armed men 24/7, and because the Israeli government officially sanctions the settlement, Hashmonaim doesn’t feel illegal.

Hashmonaim’s settlers are religious Zionists, meaning they see the land beneath their homes as God-given. It’s a territorial claim passionately disputed by the neighboring Palestinian village of Nil’in, the two enclaves separated by a barbed-wire fence.

But things weren’t always this way. In 1967, after defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six-Day War, the Israelis began the occupations of Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, Nil’in included. In 1985, they seized about 234 acres from Nil’in and built Hashmonaim there. Then, in 2002, Israel began constructing the Separation Barrier—a wall that’s 273 miles long and growing. Today the stretch that passes through Nil’in is a fence that divides the Palestinians from Hashmonaim. (Other parts of the Separation Barrier consist of a 25-foot-tall concrete wall.) In addition to providing security, the Separation Barrier is just another move in Israel’s land-grab handbook: The wall’s route veers into Palestinian territory and puts Nil’in residents’ farmland on the Israeli side with their settlements. But Nil’in residents’ themselves, separated from their land, actually live on the Palestinian side. Israel controls where the fences are built, and they use its construction to cede more land. It’s an effective strategy: Today, 89 percent of Hashmonaim sits on land that once belonged to Nil’in. If all goes according to plan, when Israel finishes the construction of the Separation Barrier, another 625 acres—about 20 percent of what remains—of Nil’in’s land will be lost. So it goes in many Palestinian villages affected by the Separation Barrier’s route, which effectively annexes 10 percent of the entire West Bank. 

Every Friday, as in many villages in the occupied Palestinian territories, residents in Nil’in hold a demonstration against the Separation Barrier and the settlements. While Israeli settlers are citizens subject to Israeli civil law, Palestinian protesters are subject to military law because they’re under occupation. Palestinians—including children—are regularly rounded up in the night, interrogated without access to lawyers, beaten, and even tortured, according to reports by numerous human rights monitors like B’tselem, Amnesty International, and Defense for Children International. Testimony is coerced from Palestinian children, pressuring them to give up information about protest leaders and participants. (In Bil’in, one village over from Nil’in, a Palestinian schoolteacher and protest leader named Abdallah Abu Rahmah recently spent 16 months in prison on charges of “incitement” and “organizing illegal demonstrations.”) Since 2005, Israeli Defense Forces have killed five Nil’in protesters, and at least 23 Palestinians—including 12 children—have lost their lives during protests against the Separation Barrier.

One rainy Friday, I visited Nil’in and tromped through the surrounding olive fields with Mohamed Ameera, a Birzeit University grad student who often attends the weekly protests in his village. We stopped at a low stone wall, about halfway between the village and Hashmonaim, the Israeli settlement. Mohamed pointed across the Separation Barrier, to a cluster of red-tiled roofs in Hashmonaim. “Those houses on the corner are built on my land,” he said flatly. Properties such as these would be sold to settlers as “cottages” or “villas” for upward of $1 million. 

It’s not hard to see how the growth of settlements is a cause for tension here. “If somebody comes into your house, takes over the top two floors, and puts you in the basement, how are you going to live here?” asks Bethlehem University professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a prominent activist against the ritzy—and American-filled—Gush Etzion settlements, about an hour’s drive southeast of Hashmonaim. A November 2009 poll in Arutz Sheva, a prosettler newspaper, supplied an answer. The survey asked respondents to imagine an ideal solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—more than half answered, “Transfer of Palestinians to another Arab country.”