When I began my assignment to Israel & the Palestinian Territories two months ago, I was determined to get out and about and see as much as possible for myself. I wanted to find out up close what life was like for the people who live here — from the Palestinians lining up obediently to get through intimidating Israeli checkpoints, to the nightlife crowd a world away in chic Tel Aviv, to the Orthodox Jews in 16th century attire in their Jerusalem districts where you dare not drive on the Sabbath, to the Palestinian olive groves and to the settlers on the occupied land of the West Bank.
I bought a GPS navigator to help me get around and the first thing I discovered was that my desired West Bank and Gaza destinations were “in an unreachable area”, according to the device. The occupied territories show up as dark grey background on the GPS. But its warnings can be overridden and it will then guide you pretty accurately to the “unreachable destinations” you seek.
As the little green arrow that designates your car moves along corridors through the dark grey background, isolated splodges of beige show up on the map. These are Israeli settlements, mostly on the hilltops. You look up from the highway and see new roads going up the slopes leading to new houses with red-tiled roofs. They are protected by steel gates and coils of razor wire and electric alarm fences, or set behind Israel’s formidable security barrier of concrete and watchtowers. The further out you go from Jerusalem, the more there is a frontier feeling to these strangely suburban-looking little communities, surrounded by rocky terraced hillsides that have barely changed down the centuries.
A settler group recently organised a visit for foreign media to correct what they view as our misperceptions about their movement. The people I met on this little tour — which provided the material for my feature — betrayed not a flicker of self-doubt. They had a few sharp answers ready for any challenge to their fundamental premise: God gave this land to the Jews and nothing over the 3,500 years since the Old Testament — the book they live by — has changed or can change that fact. The settlers we met were all friendly and polite. I have also witnessed young settler activists in less genteel circumstances, calling for the killing of young Palestinians who throw rocks at police guarding security-barrier constructions and demanding the displacement of Palestinian villagers in the way of their project to make the occupation of what they call Judea and Samaria a permanent fact.