In a hilltop suburb South of Jerusalem called Efrat, Sharon Katz serves a neat plate of sliced cake inside her five-bedroom house, surrounded by pomegranate, olive and citrus trees that she planted herself. She glances out the window at the hills where, she believes, David and Abraham once walked. "We are living in the biblical heartland," she sighs.
It is a heartland the prophets would not recognize, replete as it is with pizza parlor, jazz nights at the coffee shop, grocery store and yellow electronic gate with machine-gun-wielding guards. Efrat is one of 17 settlements that make up a bloc called Gush Etzion, located not in Israel but in the occupied West Bank. The Katzes (Sharon, husband Israel and five children) consider themselves law-abiding citizens. They publish a small community magazine and take part in civic projects. Sharon raises money for charity by putting on tap-dancing and theater shows. And yet to much of the outside world, the Katzes are participating in an illegal land grab forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit an occupying power from settling its own civilians on militarily controlled land. Some Israelis have admitted as much. While Benjamin Netanyahu, then as now Prime Minister, was negotiating with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1998, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon got on Israeli radio and urged Israelis to settle more land fast. "Grab the hilltops, and stake your claim," he said. "Everything we don't grab will go to them." (See pictures of life in the West Bank settlements.)
The Palestinians ("them") hate the settlements as a reminder of occupation, proof that if and when any agreement with Israel is forged, they will never get back the land they call theirs. The settlements have joined other intractable issues — like the desire of Palestinian refugees to return to villages their families left 60 years ago — that have stymied every effort to find peace in the Middle East for a generation. The Obama Administration says negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis can only proceed if Israel agrees to stop settling occupied land. "The settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward," said Barack Obama when he met with Netanyahu in May. But for Israeli politicians on both the left and the right, even agreeing to freeze the settlements — much less dismantling them — is easier said than done. And the Katzes are one of the reasons why. (Read "Despite Jewish Concerns, Obama Keeps Up Pressure on Israel.")
It wasn't always so. After the Six-Day War in 1967, two groups of then rare (now commonplace) religious nationalists settled one small site each in the Galilee and Efrat. At the time, the Israeli government had no intention of settling seized Arab land and sheepishly described the settlements as military bases. Over the years, though, Israeli governments of all political persuasions have supported colonizing the West Bank — providing money, building permits and water and sewage services, as well as constructing special settlers-only roads. The number of settlers has grown fast in the past 15 years, as Israeli troops have pulled out of Arab cities and moved into the countryside, where they protect the Jewish population centers. In 1995, according to Israeli census figures, 138,000 settlers lived in the West Bank and Gaza. Now in the West Bank alone (no settlers remain in Gaza), there are nearly 300,000, mostly nestled together in heavily guarded blocs, living among 2.5 million unwelcoming Arabs. An additional 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, which Israel "annexed" in 1967.
A Gathering of the Exiles
Over the years, the Israeli government has paid lip service to the idea of opposing settlements, mainly by evacuating small outposts while supporting the large, suburban-style blocs. In 2005, Israel turned Gaza over to Palestinian control, ceding major settlements for the first time in 30 years. For the settlers, who frequently justify their presence as sanctioned by God, that act was a benchmark provocation and — in the view of religious nationalists — a divine repudiation of Israel's failure to settle yet more land. The government compensated each of the Gaza families with up to $400,000, but the money is of little interest to Sharon Katz and others in Efrat. They intend to stay put.
The Katz family moved to Efrat from Woodmere, N.Y., in 1985, after a family visit to Israel during which Sharon had an epiphany while her children played with some newly arrived Ethiopians. "I looked at my sons in their Izod shirts next to these children from Africa, and I saw black, white, black," she says. "The Bible talks about the ingathering of the exiles, and here were these children all together." The Katzes don't think their town is an obstacle to peace. They can sometimes see Palestinian Arabs on the green flats far below but have no interaction with them. Most people in Efrat take bulletproof buses to Jerusalem, 15 minutes away, via a "bypass road" — one of a vast network Israel has built in the West Bank. The Katzes believe Arabs arrived in the area only in the 1970s. "People tried to build here many times and failed because the conditions were very harsh, rocky, no water," Israel Katz explains. "Jews are very stubborn people. If they want something, they won't stop. Jews started coming here and to talk of a community. That's when Arabs started coming here." (See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)
The Netanyahu government, like its predecessors, makes a distinction between what it calls "legal" settlements like the Gush Etzion bloc (pop. 75,000) and "illegal" outposts deeper in the West Bank. Within sight of the Arab city of Nablus, settler Itay Zar, 33, lives in a two-room shanty with his wife and their five children, above a stretch of road at risk from Palestinian snipers. Zar's father, Moshe Zar, is one of the biggest — and therefore most despised by Palestinians — Jewish buyers of Arab land in the West Bank. Zar grew up in the West Bank. His outpost — named Havat Gilad after an elder brother killed by Palestinians — consists of a dozen shabby metal shacks and trailers inhabited by 20 families, with 40 to 50 children among them. A plastic slide and swing set stand on a weedy corner of the arid hilltop. Havat Gilad gets electricity from generators and water from a hilltop tank. The Israeli government evacuated the settlement five years ago but recently agreed to transport its children to school. "We are on a mission," Zar tells TIME. "We didn't come here for fun, although we have fun sometimes. When we came here, this land was deserted. Since the Jews came back, it has started to flourish."
To reinforce the spiritual mission, Zar erected a yeshiva that houses 35 young men. Their families pay about $250 a month for room, board and religious instruction centered on their role in God's plan to populate the occupied area with Jews. The settlement's spiritual leader, Arie Lipo, 35, sporting a 9-inch ginger beard and an ankle-length white gown, tells TIME he battled Israeli solders during the last evacuation, but he talks softly of a kind of peace. "We build small heavens here," he says. "We are the people of the Bible. If Obama fights what God has done in bringing the people of the Bible here from the four corners of the earth, he will fall. Now the question is, Who is the boss? God? Or Obama?"
In the absence of divine intervention, resolution of the settlement conflict will have to depend on human effort. Itay Zar and Sharon Katz are profoundly unlike each other, but Palestinians revile them equally. To the Arabs, Israeli settlements have sliced and diced up territory that once belonged to them, taking scarce resources like water and requiring special checkpoints that make their daily lives a misery. Down the hillside a few miles from the Katz home, Naim Sarras, 49, a Christian Palestinian farmer, vehemently disputes the claim that Arabs arrived only in the 1970s. He displays a long row of grapevines with thick trunks, and papers from the Ottoman era that he says prove his family has farmed the land for 150 years. He can no longer sell much of his produce because the Israeli government requires him to label it PRODUCT OF ISRAEL and the Palestinian Authority forbids that. But he can't afford to leave the fields fallow — and open to Israeli confiscation. Three Sarras brothers and a cousin tend the fields under the constant surveillance of video cameras at the edge of a nearby settlement. They complain that settlers from the Gush Etzion bloc have come in the night and uprooted or poisoned olive trees. "I am willing to live with Israelis," Sarras says. "But they will not live with us." Shaul Goldstein, mayor of the Gush Etzion regional council, defends his community's dealings with local Arabs. "We have the right to have cameras to protect our communities," says Goldstein, 49, a builder who constructed many of the Etzion homes. He insists he has Palestinian friends and says, "When I saw someone had uprooted trees, we condemned it very, very dramatically. I don't accept any kind of violence."
Plumbing and Powerful Men
For every Itay Zar (there are at least 100 hilltop settlements like his in the West Bank), there are thousands of Sharon Katzes in communities with plumbing and Little League. These suburban settlers make up the established West Bank colonies that Israel does not want to relinquish — in fact, would like to expand. So far, Netanyahu has not directly challenged Obama on the settlements, other than to say he won't stop "natural growth" (that is, houses for expanding families). Since the Israeli army is always skirmishing with radicals like Zar, giving up the occasional outpost is politically feasible, even popular. But challenging powerful men like Goldstein ("He has a lot of friends in America," former President Jimmy Carter told TIME on his way into a meeting with the mayor) and law-abiding citizens like Sharon Katz is another matter. Politically, it is not easy for Netanyahu to face down the settlers. But if he does nothing, Obama will have to confront the Israelis more directly than has any other President since George H.W. Bush, who threatened to refuse granting Israel $10 million in loan guarantees as long as the expansion of settlements continued.
In Israel, settlers from suburban towns to hilltop outposts alike express contempt for Obama. The U.S. gave $2.4 billion in aid to Israel last year, but Israel Katz says the cash does not entitle a U.S. President to "tell us how to live." He adds, "He is butting into another country's interests. I don't think Israel tells Obama what to do."
In the end, even if Obama continues to apply pressure, the solution to the settlement question will have to come from inside Israel. For many Israelis, the settlements are not a matter of ideology — they simply offer a cheap place to live for a growing population. Still others see no need for settlements at all. Two opinion polls in June had very different results. In one, 56% supported Obama's position; in the other, 56% opposed it. As the settlers build, tacitly assisted by the state, activists often campaign against them. "This is about the borders of morality. Do we want to rape 3 million people to obtain a national narrative?" says Dror Etkes, who works for an Israeli human-rights organization, Yesh Din, that challenges settlements in court. "The settlers are a small minority of strong militants. I don't think they will provoke a civil war, but I think disengagement will be the hardest trauma in Israel's history."
Sitting around their kitchen table, with grandchildren's plastic toys scattered on a deck beyond sliding-glass doors, the Katz family doesn't look or sound militant. Indeed, to American ears, their version of the national narrative sounds rather familiar. "I would love it that the little outposts someday have their own playgrounds and Little League," Sharon Katz says. "Israel shouldn't leave any hilltop! How did communities start out in the American West? With one log cabin. When we bought this land, it was a rocky hillside. Look what it looks like today."
— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein and Jamil Hamad/Jerusalem