A couple of months ago, my friend was on a rant (albeit, a very coherent one) about how CouchSurfing's website supports Zionism by allowing settlers in the West Bank to list their location as "Judea and Samaria" – the Israeli name for most of the disputed West Bank. She was trying to make a point about how CouchSurfing is supporting Israel's colonialist project of erasing Palestinian identity. But what I took away from it was: 'Wait, you can CouchSurf in the settlements?'
And yes, as it turns out, you can CouchSurf in the settlements. I sent out requests to everyone I could find under "Judea and Samaria", omitting the fact that I'm a journalist living in Palestine, assuming that journalists and people living in Palestine are two of the things settlers hate most. I quickly received several replies and set about making preparations. With my first CouchSurfing trip approaching, I experienced a steep uptick in my anxiety level. After all, these are the people who descend on Palestinian villages firing assault rifles wildly at anything that moves.
Almost every story I've ever heard about settlers sounds like someone describing a nightmarish mescaline trip coordinated by the lovechild of Charlie Manson and Timothy Leary. Like, for example, the time a band of settlers rode into town on horseback and set fire to 1,500 olive trees in a single attack. Or the time a settler woman grabbed a ten-year-old Palestinian kid, stuffed rocks in his mouth and then forced his mouth closed, breaking his teeth, all while fighting off an Israeli soldier who was trying to intervene.
Just a little glimpse of some of the stolen land in Gush Etzion.
Picture a heavily-armed, modern-day KKK that doesn't even bother to conceal their identities with stupid costumes and that's pretty much my impression of what settlers are. Of course, not all settlers are blood-thirsty racist thugs. Those are just the ones that get the most media attention, for obvious reasons. Most people living in settlements move there because they're heavily subsidised by the Israeli government. It's a pretty sweet deal if you're an upper-middle-class Israeli: you get super-cheap housing in a newly-constructed, upscale neighbourhood, and since regional councils usually have approval over who can move into the settlement, you won't have to worry about any Arabs setting up shop next door.
When I met Shaul, from the settlement of Gvaot, my nervousness about this whole plan swiftly decreased. From the moment he came to pick me up in Jerusalem, it was apparent that he was a really nice guy. And I don't mean he was a really nice guy compared to what I expected from a settler – I mean he was a really nice guy by any conceivable standard of such things. Shaul and his wife Lea were incredibly gracious and hospitable the entire time I was in Gvaot. Besides opening their home to a complete stranger from an alien culture with no experience of their way of life, they cooked for me, fed me chocolate and coffee, introduced me to their family and were incredibly pleasant people for the duration of my stay.
They doted on their one-month-old daughter and their African grey parrot, clearly proud of both. And they may have been living on stolen land, but their reasons for doing so seriously complicated my feelings about the entire situation. Gvaot, you see, is a small community of 17 families inside the large Gush Etzion settlement cluster. (The Israeli Defence Ministry apparently just authorised the construction of 523 new housing units in Gvaot, which I can't imagine anyone in Gvaot thinking is a good thing.)
A garden in Gvaot.
The people of Gvaot live in mobile homes in similar conditions to those you find in any trailer park – that is to say, they weren't exactly living the high life. Shaul commutes every day to Jerusalem, where he studies documentary filmmaking at the university there. They moved to Gvaot to be close to Lea's workplace: a school for children with Down's Syndrome. Now, in my book, teaching children with Down's Syndrome is an incredibly noble way to spend your life. I saw Shaul and Lea interact with some of the children from the school, many of whom also live in Gvaot, and I could tell the kids were genuinely happy to see them.
More impressive still were the wedding photos. When Shaul and Lea were married, they threw a big wedding ceremony somewhere in northern Israel. They brought all their friends and family, of course, but they also brought the kids from the school, and in the photos it was obvious the kids were having the time of their lives. The problem is, they're still on stolen land. According to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 33 acres of land were seized from the Palestinian village of Nahhalin in order to make room for the settlers of Gvaot.
Shaul pointed out Nahhalin to me on the car ride in to Gvaot, telling me "We get along with them. They are good people." I realised what he meant by this the next day, when I saw some Palestinian guys doing landscaping outside one of the trailers. The more I talked to Shaul and Lea, the more odd details of their worldview popped into focus. For example, during dinner on my first night in Gvaot, Shaul started talking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail, pontificating on the historical accuracy of the film.
A lone oak in Gush Etzion.
"They burned a lot of women as witches in the medieval times, but most of the time it wasn't true, just like in the movie," he tells me, and I had to almost literally bite my tongue to avoid yelling out "Most of the time?" After dinner, we sat on the couch of Shaul's living room and he started asking me about the US elections, still upcoming at the time I visited. He wanted to know if I liked Obama or Romney. I refuse to vote for anyone who supports a policy of literally endless war, which made the Obama/Romney choice rather irrelevant to me.
My guy was Vermin Supreme, but I wasn't about to tell Shaul and Lea that, so I gave a noncommittal "I'm not sure yet." Shaul said he wasn't sure either, since he thought Obama was better for America, but Romney was better for Israel. Under Obama, US financial aid to Israel has reached its highest levels ever, but since I was acting ignorant about Israel in order to not arouse suspicion, I didn't mention that to Shaul. The election discussion led us into talking about the political situation in Israel and opposition to settlements, which seemed to deeply confuse Shaul, who couldn't understand why anyone would be against Israeli Jews living on the land.
A natural pool in Gush Etzion.
As he was describing a recent settler attack on a Palestinian vehicle, Lea broke in to ask him to change the subject. "We almost never talk about politics here," Shaul confided. Personally, I would call throwing a Molotov cocktail at a civilian vehicle "terrorism" and not "politics", but it's a case of tuh-may-ta, tow-mah-toh, I guess. The next day we ate shakshouka for breakfast and talked about the City of David. The City of David is a horrible, horrible colonialist project with the twin goals of promoting an exclusively Zionist version of history and wiping out the Palestinian East Jerusalem community of Silwan.
It seemed like everyone in Gvaot had some connection to the City of David. A woman we ate breakfast with was the daughter of the City of David's director, and Shaul's dad did some archaeological digging there, supposedly proving that some ruins (presumably under someone's home in Silwan that had to be demolished to get at this compelling archaeological evidence) came from the exact date of the Biblical reign of King David. Everyone who talked about it made vague references to opposition to the project, but seemed completely baffled as to how anyone could possibly be against forcing people from their homes at gun point and then bulldozing the houses in order to find some rocks from several millennia ago.
Clothes and guns belonging to frolicking Israeli soldiers.
I got a final striking example of the settler capacity for ignoring cognitive dissonance during a mountain bike ride with Shaul down the beautiful rolling hills of Gush Etzion. It was easy to understand why the Israelis want this land – it's gorgeous, filled with trees and clear, sparkling pools. We stopped at one of these pools and Shaul stripped down to his underwear for an afternoon dip. A couple of guys were playing backgammon and had left their clothes piled up about 40 feet away, along with their automatic weapons. I was pretty shocked to see a few M4s carelessly piled up with the shirts and towels, but Shaul explained the guys were soldiers and therefore required to take their guns with them everywhere.
Then came the cognitive dissonance section of our ride. Shaul was telling me a story about how men sometimes swim naked in the pool: "They ask the women to leave, but sometimes the women say, 'You do what you want, but I stay here because this place is for everyone.'" Everyone? Really? Well, I asked, what about the Palestinians? Do they ever come here to swim? "No, not very many," Shaul said. "There is no Arab village close to here." So that's how you're able to steal land from a disenfranchised people under military occupation in order to teach kids with Down's Syndrome at a special-needs school: because it's the simplest thing in the world for you to hold two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time.
Everything about your way of life explicitly supports an apartheid regime inching its way towards a genocidal final solution to "the Palestinian question", but you never talk about politics. You pass Nahhalin every day on your way to university and claim to "get along with them", but you also believe that "there is no Arab village close to here". It's simple, I guess, once you decide to stop thinking about it and just do it.
Click through to read about the settler invested in a pyramid scam.
After catching a settler bus out of Gvaot (which, in contrast to the Palestinian buses leaving Bethlehem, was not stopped at the checkpoint and boarded by irate, gun-toting soldiers for a document inspection), I set about organising my next CouchSurf. This was to be with Roni, a 23-year-old "businessman" from Alfei Menashe, near the West Bank city of Qalqilya.
Roni seemed a little suspicious of hosting an outsider in the settlement and wanted to meet me in Jerusalem before taking me out to Alfei Menashe. We exchanged phone numbers and he would periodically call me to get coffee. This turned into a frustrating game because, despite what I told Roni, I do not live in Jerusalem. I live in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. Even though Ramallah is only about 15 km from Jerusalem, the trip takes around two hours thanks to the necessity of passing through the Qalandiya checkpoint, a kennel-like people-cage seemingly designed to afflict the greatest possible amount of inconvenience and humiliation upon everyone who passes through it.
After many botched attempts at meeting up, Roni called to invited me to an exciting event: he has a business, he said, that operates in 23 countries, and over the coming weekend they'd be meeting with their American business partners at a convention centre in Tel Aviv. It's a closed event, but Roni reckons he can get me in, if I'm interested. Which, of course, I am. Meeting a big-shot businessman and his American business partners in Tel Aviv? My head swam with the possibilities of what this shady, mysterious business could be and what I could find out about it at this meeting.
As it turned out, the business was in Israel not to steal from Palestinians (the normal business model around here, especially when there's dealings in the settlements), but to rip off Israelis. The business was called Monavie and, although it really is a big-shot corporation, I quickly realised Roni is decidedly not a big-shot businessman. Monavie, you see, is more or less a pyramid scheme. Its business model is called "network marketing" and similar to Avon or Mary Kay, it involves getting people to get their friends to sell stuff, then the friends get their friends to sell stuff and so on. Roni is maybe three stones up from the bottom of the pyramid, and it seems unlikely they're going to be building monuments to him any time soon.
After trying to sell the idea to me, Roni shared his view on the settlements. "It was Arab land until 1967. Then some Israelis moved in when we took it in the war. We will have to give it back when Israel leaves that area. Some of us will have to leave. But for now, we live with the Arabs and coexist. It's very nice." In the five months I've been living in Palestine, I haven't met a single Arab who would describe the settlements (or the settlers) as "very nice", but I guess Roni has to tell himself something to be able to sleep at night.
While we talked, the convention centre quickly filled up with açai-obsessed Israeli socialites. It soon turned out that what Roni meant when he said he was "meeting with our American business partners" was that one of the motivational speakers had flown in from the US to tell the crowd that anyone can sell açai juice in wine bottles if you just believe in yourself really, really hard.
At this point, I should mention that this took place around day four or five of the Israeli bombing attack on Gaza known as Operation Pillar of Defence. The war ended up causing at least 158 Palestinian casualties and six Israeli deaths, none in Tel Aviv. After the American guy was done jabbering at us, everyone in the room started dancing to that Black Eyed Peas song that goes "Tonight's gonna be a good, good night." This song is incredibly obnoxious on a good day, but watching a bunch of juice salesmen dance to it, waving Israeli flags while their army was bombing the shit out of Gaza on that same "good, good night" was one of the more obscene spectacles I've witnessed in my lifetime.
The American guy came back to tell us he had been sexually molested as a child. I didn't really understand what this had to do with selling açai juice, but if he had to get it off his chest, I guess it's good he had a venue to do it in. Roni gave me a ride back to central Tel Aviv and we made plans to meet up again so I could come out to Alfei Menashe. This didn't end up happening, but I did make it out there a couple of weeks later, CouchSurfing with a woman who was about the same age as my mum.
A memorial statue in Alfei Menashe.
The woman I met through CouchSurfing, Tami, picked me up in the nearby town of Kfar Saba. She and her husband David are Americans who immigrated to Israel about 20 years ago and never looked back. On the way to Alfei Menashe, we stopped to pick up Sam, David's daughter from a previous marriage. In the car, I learned that Tami is surprisingly liberal for a settler. She points out the separation barrier (also known as the "Apartheid Wall", depending on which side of it you're on) to the side of the highway.
"They built the security fence here, which is not good," Tami said, and Sam piped up from the backseat: "It's not good? It saves lives!" "Yeah, but first, it's passive security, which I don't like. Second, it cuts villages in two and people can't get across," Tami answered, before conceding "But it does save lives." We passed a Bedouin village and Tami said when the wall was built, the people there called their family from all over the West Bank to move in, hoping they would get Israeli citizenship due to the fact they lived inside the wall. But Israel, predictably, didn't give it to them.
Arriving in Alfei Menashe, I was struck by how much it looks like any upscale American suburb. It has nicely manicured lawns, a public swimming pool, clean streets and immaculate houses. It was like the ticky-tacky town from Weeds, except with way more Israeli flags. When I got to Tami's house I met David, who loves cooking, talking to the family's myriad animals and playing Civilisation on the computer. It seems these activities, plus reading, are pretty much all Tami and David do. They're basically like any American nuclear family, two cars in the garage and so on.
Construction in Alfei Menashe.
Except that, like all settlers, they live on stolen land, which they explain away by claiming Alfei Menashe is a "consensus settlement", basically meaning they believe the Palestinians don't mind it's there. I arrived on Shabbat, and helped David prepare Shakshouka. After we ate, I learned that Tami is a retired counter-intelligence officer who now spends her days studying the Torah. The next morning, Tami told me she used to be a volunteer sniper. Meaning she worked as a sniper with the Israeli police just for kicks, without getting paid.
Her explanation of the difficulties of sniper work with the police force destroyed any illusion I had of her as a normal American liberal. "Being a sniper for the police is much harder than being a sniper for the army," she said. "If a terrorist takes a hostage, you don't only have to worry about shooting the terrorist and not the hostage, you also have to worry about shooting a bullet through the wall of an apartment and hitting somebody else, or smashing glass and sending shrapnel everywhere. If you're in the army, you don't have to worry about any of that. It doesn't even matter if you hit what you're aiming at."
Click through to read about the Israeli settler rave.
A crumbling building with an easy chair lookout in Tifzi.
My impression of having found a completely normal settler family ruined, I headed back to Ramallah and set up my final CouchSurfing trip, in the artists' community of Tifzi outside the settlement of Giv'at Ze'ev. Natan, the guy from Tifzi I talked to, had told me to get off the bus at the co-op supermarket. I asked the driver to tell me when we got there and he let me off outside a supermarket, but it quickly became apparent that I was in the wrong place. It was after dark, and wandering aimlessly around a settlement full of strangers brought back visions of all the terrible stories I'd heard of stonings, beatings and other random settler attacks. But luckily I had Natan's phone number and he figured out where I was.
We climbed a hill to get to Tifzi and I got the impression I was in a particularly colourful Occupy camp. It's basically a series of tents built up around an abandoned, crumbling house with a giant Israeli flag flying over the whole thing. I'd come on the night of a Hanukkah trance party, which meant that there would be music blasting from midnight till noon. A bunch of weirdo hippies arrived to dance and paint abstract glow-in-the-dark art. There was also a Japanese guy on an acid trip who didn't seem to speak any English or Hebrew, but who kept yelling "HANUKKAH!" and running off.
A German dude wandered around taking dozens of pictures of Tifzi's resident canine. "I've been taking so many pictures of that dog in different situations!" he exclaimed. "The life of a dog in a Zionist hippie commune! It's crazy!" And of course everyone was obsessed with the apocalypse. The most striking example of this was Jacob, a middle-aged American guy who approached me while I was standing at a fire. Our conversation started out normal enough, with him telling me he'd been in Israel for the duration of one three-month visa, before going to Jordan, where he got it renewed and came back.
Then, out of nowhere, he started yelling, "That song "American Pie" – everything in that song came true this year!" He was working himself up into a rage about the secrets revealed by the famous prophet Don McLean. He was so angry about the song coming true that for a moment I was afraid he was going to hit me. But he was just explaining the prophecy.
"And Lennon read a book of Marx! Barack Obama is a Marxist and the US is a Marxist country!" He told me that "Barack Obama" in Hebrew means "Lightning from the heights", a reference to Satan in the Book of Revelations, or something, and further proof that the end of the world is imminent. He said there were some righteous people in America who will be saved on Judgement Day, "but just by the skin of their teeth!"
All the righteous are leaving America, according to Jacob. I actually agreed with this, but for reasons having nothing to do with the song "American Pie". I eventually excused myself and went to the sleep tent. Before I retired, Jacob told me, "I've been praying I'd meet a righteous person, and you're him." It was a little scary to have a raving, right-wing, religious nut job tell me I'm a "righteous person", but I'll take compliments where I can get them. I somehow managed to sleep for an hour or two, despite the fact that the sleep tent was about ten feet away from gigantic speakers blasting Israeli techno.
The next morning, I explored the camp in the daylight and discovered that their idea of "art" seems to mostly involve putting bicycles in trees. I ran into the Japanese guy, who yelled "Konichiwa, motherfuckers!" and disappeared again. On the roof of the crumbling building, I ended up talking to Rafael, one of the guys who started Tifzi. Looking over the wall at Ramallah, I asked him how he felt living so close to it. He said he didn't care, he just didn't want to hurt anyone. And if they tried to hurt him, well, everyone at Tifzi has been in the army, so let them try. Then, out of the blue, he started in on the apocalypse, too. "I have something to tell visitors to Israel," he said. "Soon, every army on Earth will be fighting on Jerusalem."
I asked what he meant. "Armageddon, whatever you want to call it." I asked if he thought it would be coming soon and he said it had already started. I asked if a lot of people in Israel felt that way. "Yes, even if they don't say it out loud, I think everyone feels it." I said my goodbyes and headed out of Tifzi. It's Shabbat, so there were no public buses running and I had to hitchhike back to Jerusalem. Luckily, a car pulled over almost immediately. I walked up to try to stammer out the Hebrew name for where I needed to go. There were two guys in the car, both American. They introduced themselves as "Pimpin'" and "A-Time". (I've changed everyone's name in this story, but I let Pimpin' and A-Time keep theirs.)
Coincidentally, Pimpin' and A-Time are also armageddon-obsessed trance music promoters. "The apocalypse has already started," Pimpin' told me. "Everything's going crazy. Bath salts, man." They stopped to buy unspecified drugs somewhere and then dropped me off in Jerusalem, ending my adventure CouchSurfing the settlements.
If I learned something from it, I guess it's this: just because someone lives on stolen Palestinian land, doesn't necessarily mean they're a hyper-violent psychopath. But it doesn't seem like many of them are what you'd call sane, either.
More settlements in the West Bank:
Watch - Renegade Jewish Settlers