FaithWorld

Jewish settlers claim biblical birthright to occupied West Bank land

settlers (Photo: Avraham Binyamin builds a sukkah, a ritual booth for the holiday of Sukkot, on the West Bank Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, south of Nablus, September 20, 2010/Ronen Zvulun)

Jewish settler Avraham Binyamin says any Israeli withdrawal from occupied land would be like severing a limb from his body. As one of some 300,000 Israelis living in enclaves built on West Bank land that Palestinians seek for a state, Binyamin expresses a view held by many that the area is a Jewish biblical birthright and must never be relinquished, not even for peace.

“The national being of any people, particularly the Jewish people, is like a body, you cannot give up parts of your body,” said Binyamin, 25, a teacher from Yitzhar, a settlement known for its tense relations with neighboring Palestinian villages. The question of settlements has come to the fore at the peace negotiations as a partial freeze on Jewish building in the West Bank ended on Sunday.

The religiously devout father of two says the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank should be relocated to neighboring Arab lands. “I can sometimes very much understand their pain and their need,” he says. “But from the national perspective, it’s either me or them — and I prefer it to be me.”

“We, as Jews, believe that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel because a divine promise was given to us. The Bible is our legal document,” says Binyamin, who serves as a spokesman for Yitzhar, which rarely opens up for the media.

Such beliefs underscore how hard it will be to reach a peace deal; the Palestinians take for granted that, at a minimum, dozens of smaller settlements, including Yitzhar, must go as part of an accord.

Visiting the Samaritans on their holy West Bank mountain

samaritan-slideshow (Click on the photo above for a slideshow on the Samaritans)

Samaritan High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa was relaxing on his porch watching Al-Jazeera on a wide-screen TV when we dropped by his home to talk about his ancient religion. “I like to keep up with the news,” the 83-year-old head of one of the world’s oldest and smallest religions explained as he turned down the volume. Told we wanted to make him part of the news, more precisely part of a feature on Samaritanism, he sat up, carefully put on his red priestly turban and proceeded to chat away in the fluent English he learned as a boy under the British mandate for Palestine. Our interview with him and other Samaritans were the basis for my feature “Samaritans use modern means to keep ancient faith.”

sadaqa (Photo: High Priest Abdel Moin Sadaqa at his home, 19 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Visiting the descendants of the biblical Samaritans was the last stop in a series of visits in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank I made after covering Pope Benedict’s trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Leaving Jerusalem with Ivan Karakashian from our bureau there, we drove through Israel’s imposing security barrier to Ramallah, picked up our Nablus stringer Atef Sa’ad there and then drove north along the web of priority roads that link the spreading network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank back to Israel. Signs of the Israeli-Palestinian face-off were all around — Israeli army patrols and checkpoints, guarded Jewish enclaves flying the Star of David flag on the hills and Palestinian villages with their mosques and minarets in the valleys. The tension seemed to melt away, though, when we turned onto a narrow road to wind our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza.

The West Bank Samaritans used to live in Nablus, the nearest Palestinian city, but left it when the first intifada in 1987 brought the tension too close for comfort. The Samaritans get along with both Israelis and Palestinians and many have identity papers from both sides, Husney Kohen, one of the faith’s 12 hereditary priests, told us at the community’s small museum in Kiryat Luza. But their custom of not taking sides and keeping secrets meant that gunmen began using their neighbourhood as a place to execute enemies in broad daylight without worrying about witnesses. “We weren’t hurt, but we were afraid,” he said. Now living on their holy mountain, the Samaritans feel safe.