The occupied West Bank: divided by faith, united by fear | ET REALITY


When Moish Feiglin arrives at his settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, he points to an eight-foot-high concrete slab blocking the middle of the road.

“That’s new,” he says.

He walks around it slowly, nodding toward more security barriers and heavily armed soldiers watching from behind the front door. “And so is that and that and that.”

Last month, his settlement, Tekoa, became “a military base,” he says, which goes against his personal code.

“I don’t have stone-proof glass on my car windows,” he says. “I don’t want rock-proof glass.”

“But you have to understand what people are preparing for,” he adds. “They are preparing for the entry of 200 terrorists.”

The West Bank, an area many times larger than Gaza and complicated in its own way, is once again a point of tension, and all sides are clearly nervous.

While the world is increasingly criticizing Israel for its bombing of Gaza, deep concern is also growing over the actions of the Israeli military and Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a disputed patchwork of Palestinian areas and Israeli settlements like Tekoa that most part of the world considers illegal.

Jewish settlers of all political stripes are arming themselves, and extremists among them have attacked Palestinians and driven hundreds from their lands.

At the same time, there have been more Israeli military incursions, more violent protests, more arrests and more Palestinian attacks on Israelis last month than in any similar period in years.

The result is an increasingly combustible atmosphere where people are divided by faith and united by fear, and the humanity of almost everyone is being tested.

“I’m very confused inside,” says Abu Adam, a Palestinian tour guide who asked to be identified by his patronymic, fearing he could be “socially isolated” – or hurt – for expressing moderate opinions. “We are suffering, they are suffering. “Everything has stopped.”

“And the situation is only going to get worse,” he adds.

The story of Moish Feiglin and Abu Adam, two professionals whose lives have been turned upside down by violence, reveals how deeply both sides are afraid, even if the power dynamics between them are vastly unequal.

As an Israeli, Feiglin can’t stop thinking about the October 7 attacks. The scale and horror with which Hamas terrorists massacred some 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, some brutally, have led him, by his own admission, to “close off” part of his heart.

He doesn’t like carrying a Glock. But he is allowed to do it, and so he does it. The Israeli army has been assigned to protect the community from him. Still, he cautiously surveys the hills that separate his settlement from the Arab areas and begins to question many of the fundamental things he once believed in.

“I’m struggling,” he says. “Six weeks ago, I was advocating for peace, I was sending my children to a Palestinian-Israeli summer camp, I was shopping in Arab stores in town and embracing the ideology that came with that. And now I think: ‘What’s next? Can we really get back to that? ‘Was I, in the past, too naïve?’”

Abu Adam used to participate in grassroots peace efforts and also wonders if his old attitude is already outdated. It embodies the everyday difficulties of a Palestinian living under an Israeli occupation that leaves him stateless, restricts his movements, and makes it illegal for him or any other Palestinian civilian to carry a firearm. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza, 60 miles away, has killed more than 11,000 people, according to the enclave’s Hamas-run Health Ministry. The images he sees on television of his fellow Palestinians, bleeding and dying, grieving and overcome with pain, he says, have hardened him.

“We have lost everything,” he says. “And sometimes, you just want to escape. But there is nowhere to go.”

The two men live opposite each other, share similar thoughts and even do the same type of work.

But they have never met and in the occupied West Bank they live in different worlds.

On the morning of October 7, Mr. Feiglin was praying at a synagogue in Tekoa and Abu Adam was leading a tour in Jericho. He was guiding an American family through what might be the oldest city in the world when his phone started ringing in his pocket.

“I looked at my messages,” Abu Adam says. “All I saw was: Cancel, cancel, cancel, cancel.”

His next clients were backing out on trips booked for this fall, and those with him were so terrified by the news that they insisted on leaving Jericho immediately.

When he came home that night and collapsed on the couch, he was horrified by what he saw on television.

“It was terrible to see people killed like that,” he said. “Hamas made a mistake.”

But, he hastened to add, “too much pressure causes an explosion.”

Up the hill, Feiglin watched his community transform before his eyes. Anyone with a gun grabbed it and a civil guard force was instantly formed.

Tekoa is one of about 130 West Bank settlements, built on land Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Many are like islands, situated in the middle of Arab areas. They are often criticized, even among many Israelis, as the biggest obstacle to peace. About half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, along with some 2.7 million Palestinians. The settlements reflect a wide range of politics and lifestyles, from ultra-nationalist communities to more moderate communities focused on agriculture.

Half an hour south of Jerusalem and with 4,300 residents, Tekoa falls somewhere in the middle of the settler political spectrum. Known by some as “the hippie settlement” for its sizable contingent of artists and peace activists, it is also home to right-wing supporters who advocate taking more Palestinian land.

There has been little violence here so far, and Feiglin calls recent settler attacks in other areas “reprehensible,” “against Jewish values,” and “very, very marginal.” Such aggression, he says, contrasts sharply with the minimum of interdependence that Tekoa and neighboring Arab villages had maintained, more out of necessity than anything else.

Before Oct. 7, dozens of Palestinian men worked on construction sites in the settlement, which, with its homes and rolling streets, looks like an American subdivision. Some settlers, like Feiglin, ventured into Arab areas to buy hardware or fix their cars.

Sometimes Jews and Arabs shared meals, played music together, or gathered with their families in a camp near Bethlehem. None of this is happening now.

Mr. Feiglin is a therapist, musician and desert guide. He specializes in breathing and music therapy. But with tourists fleeing Israel, his tourism business, like Abu Adam’s, has dried up.

They are both running out of cash. They are both worried about their children. Feiglin’s 10-year-old daughter was going to school this spring, she says, when a group of Palestinians attacked her bus with rocks. She’s still shocked by it. As for Abu Adam, she worries that her children will be the ones throwing stones.

It was for the sake of his children, Abu Adam says, that he joined local peace efforts in which Palestinians met with Israelis and discussed ways to live together. When he was young, he had been imprisoned for participating in violent protests against the expansion of Tekoa, which he and other Palestinians said was illegally built on their land.

“But the problem I faced in my life,” he says, “I didn’t want my children to face.”

Feiglin, 39, is a bit contradictory. Born in Australia, he moved to the West Bank eight years ago. He says that he likes spending time with ordinary Palestinians and promoting peace and coexistence.

But doesn’t the very existence of their agreement complicate peace and coexistence?

“It’s a question I’ve asked myself,” he says. “My presence in the agreement will not change the facts on the ground.”

He chose to live in Tekoa, he says, because of its sense of community and the intoxicating effects of living on the edge of a spectacular desert. She finds herself thinking about his Palestinian acquaintances like Ismail, the hardware store owner whom she used to see all the time and now hasn’t seen in weeks.

“All these microinteractions,” he says, his voice trailing off during a conversation in his kitchen. “I don’t know how far this is going to set us back.”

“But trusting would be a risk, right?” says his wife, Adena Firstman, sitting next to him. “We’re kind of in survival mode.”

Mr. Feiglin cracks an almond between his teeth and responds, “We’re in Rambo mode.”

No place can better demonstrate the “Rambo way” than a hill near Tekoa that Jewish settlers recently took over in clear violation of Israeli law.

Mr. Feiglin drives there on a bumpy road, passing through huge canyons dotted with brush and white stones. The Dead Sea shines in the distance. Beyond lie the red rock mountains of Jordan.

The landscape looks old, but the road itself is newly demolished. “At any other time,” Feiglin says, “the settlers who did this couldn’t get away with it.”

The top of the hill is guarded by four young men with matted hair, dirty jeans and locks of ultra-Orthodox hair.

His equipment: some radios, a box of ammunition, pistol magazines, a prayer book, long knives, and half-eaten pieces of challah. A belt-fed machine gun sits atop sandbags, pointed at the steep hills.

“We should just shoot them in the head,” says Meir Kinarty, one of the young men, referring to the Palestinian protesters. “Only a bullet in the brain will make them learn.”

A reservist soldier, Andrew Silberman, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, is also stationed at the top of the hill. “This is totally illegal,” he says of the outpost, but he also says it’s his duty to help protect the area.

Like those of many others, Mr. Silberman’s feelings are complicated. He seems put off by the bloodthirsty bravado of the young men who strut around with his knives. He says he understands how all the violence sweeping through the West Bank, which has already been rocked by major uprisings in the past, can radicalize people on both sides.

“But I don’t agree that hate should be the answer,” he says.

When his shift ends, Mr. Silberman takes the belt-fed machine gun with him, worried about leaving it with the young men.

Abu Adam, from the roof of the house he built with his tour guide’s earnings, can see, squinting, this same hilltop.

He laughs when asked which way to go.

“It’s not clear,” he says. “But we have to keep looking.”

Adam Sella and Rami Nazzal contributed with reports.

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