“If We Could, We’d Be Building Like Crazy”

Why Jewish settlers in the West Bank are looking forward to Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership.

Elianna Passentin at the Hayovel outpost.
        Photo: Adriaan Bloemendaal. Click image to expand.
Elianna Passentin at the Hayovel outpost

HAYOVEL, West Bank—Elianna Passentin says she moved from her native California to this settlement deep in the heart of the West Bank because she wanted to raise her six children in a place tied to Jewish history.

“Looking out our windows, we see Tel Shilo, which was the capital of the Israelite kingdom for 359 years and the site of the Tabernacle,” she says. “In our garden we found dozens of pottery shards from the time of the Bible. Our children learn [the] Bible at home and then they see the Bible out their window.”

The outpost currently consists of 16 permanent houses and 20 mobile homes. It was built more than 10 years ago to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. Passentin and others here say Hayovel is a neighborhood of nearby Eli, a large Jewish settlement with 640 families. But Eli is almost a mile away, and to much of the international community, this is an outpost, one of about 100 built illegally even according to Israeli law.    

Passentin and other Jewish settlers in the West Bank hope that the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu will mean an expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Ten of the incoming Knesset members live in the West Bank, and one faction, the National Union, says it will join Netanyahu’s government only if it agrees to expand settlements and legalize dozens of outposts like Hayovel.

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he would prefer a unity government with the centrist Kadima and the center-left Labor Party, but both of these parties seem headed to opposition. That means Netanyahu needs the National Union if he wants to have a stable coalition of 65 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Settlement expansion has been one of the most controversial issues in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Today there are an estimated 300,000 Jewish settlers in more than 140 settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Palestinian officials say the settlements make any kind of viable independent Palestinian state impossible.

Settlers say that under outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima, it was almost impossible to expand settlements. Aliza Herbst, the spokeswoman for the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization for the settlers, says Olmert had to personally approve any expansion, “even adding a porch.” She says there are hundreds of families that would like to move to settlements in the West Bank but have been unable to find homes. Many of these are young couples who grew up in settlements, married, and now want to build their own homes. This is what settlers call “natural growth.”

Israeli officials have long maintained that a settlement freeze does not cover natural growth. But the 2003 U.S.-backed road map to peace calls for a total settlement freeze, and as far as U.S. officials are concerned, that means no natural growth.

Journalist Gershom Gorenberg, who has written a history of the settlement movement called The Accidental Empire, says the population of settlements continued to grow by 5 percent under Olmert. Even today, settlers receive a series of economic benefits from the Israeli government, including subsidized mortgages. These benefits are likely to increase under a Netanyahu government.

Settlement spokeswoman Herbst says Netanyahu will have to walk a fine line between expanding settlements and trying not to anger the Obama administration. President Obama has said he supports negotiations leading to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “I’m not out to make an enemy of America, and Netanyahu will have to be careful,” she said. “At the same time, I do expect building on some projects that were frozen to resume.”

Settlers listened carefully to President Obama’s speech to Congress last week. Israel was barely mentioned, they said, and it is clear that the new president’s priorities are the economy, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Back in Hayovel, Elianna Passentin says that until Netanyahu was elected, she worried that she might have to leave her home. Now she is less worried.

“When I think about being uprooted, I have real physical pain,” she said. “I would never harm a Jewish soldier, but it won’t be easy to get me out of here.”

There are about 20 families waiting just to live in Hayovel, she says. “If we could, we’d be building like crazy.”