Faces of the Israeli settlements

Residents of two West Bank settlements talk about their reasons for moving to the Israeli-occupied territories, and whether they feel their presence is a hindrance to peace.

Communities housing more than 500,000 Jewish residents that were set up on land Israel captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War have been cited as a major stumbling block to peace talks and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Except for East Jerusalem, the land widely known as the West Bank is also referred to as Judea and Samaria Area by some Israelis.

Settlements are widely seen as illegal under international law, although the Israeli government disagrees. Some unauthorized outposts were also established without the approval of the Israeli government.

“The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Aug. 12. The U.S. is trying to broker an agreement on a "two-state solution" in which Israel would coexist peacefully next to a Palestinian state created in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, both of which were occupied by the Israelis. In 2005, all Israeli settlements in Gaza were closed and their residents rehoused.

While some of the world’s top diplomats and statesmen focus on the issue of settlements, few have looked at who the settlers themselves are, and what their motivations for living in the controversial communities are. NBC News has spoken to residents of two West Bank settlements – Abigail and Ariel – to discover their reasons for moving to the Israeli-occupied territories, and whether they felt their presence was a hindrance to peace.

-- Interviews and text by Dave Copeland, NBC News

Dave Copeland

Liz Hadida said she moved to Ariel because it is comfortable and its university has a great engineering department.

“I wanted to experience student life and to be part of the Jewish state,” said the 23-year-old, who is studying to become an industrial engineer. “I love Israel and I support Ariel University – they do a great job of integrating both the Arab and the Jewish world by bringing students together in a great environment.”

Hadida said both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have suffered.

“I’ve learned not to judge either side, once a person experiences pain, it is hard for them to form an opinion based on facts,” she said.

She acknowledged that for some, the settlements are an obstacle to peace in the Palestinians and the Arab world.

“Personally, I don't feel the obstacle on a daily basis. I study along with Arab students and we get along great. I developed friendships with Arabs based on personality, not about what the world has to say about it,” she added.

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Hever Ben Chorin, a welder in Abigail, takes issue with using the word “occupation” in a negative sense.

“All parts of this land were occupied throughout history and we don't think of ourselves as different from the generation that built this country,” the 26-year-old said. “In addition we live in an area where historically the tribes of Benjamin and Judea lived and we came to this country because of our roots here.”

A large reason for living in the unauthorized settlement is ideological, he said.

“We support living here and in similar settlements. The reason for living in Abigail is not only because of personal, family and employment motives.”

Far from being an obstacle to peace with Palestinians, Ben Chorim said that settlements like Abigail improve neighboring communities in terms of infrastructure and transportation links.

“We feel that our relationships with our neighbors in Abigail are not hostile,” he said.

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While Natalie Zacks, 34, called her community in Ariel beautiful and wonderful, she admitted that she was scared of her Arab neighbors, citing fear of stabbings, rock-throwing and “murder of families in their beds.”

“While the interaction between Jews and Arabs is limited, I try to do what I can," the high-tech worker said. “I shop at an Arab pet store right outside Ariel. The owner is very nice and helpful. But I can honestly say there is definitely that little bit of fear every time I go there."

Still, Zacks sees no reason to leave.

“This land was given to the Jewish people many, many years ago, as it is written in the Bible. If you want something a little more recent, it was won in the Six Day War,” she said, referring to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War during which Israel took control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Uprooting settlements will not solve any problems, she said.

“Giving land away will not bring peace, as was proven all too well with Gush Katif,” she said, referring to a Jewish community in Gaza that was evacuated before the strip was handed to Palestinian control.

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Yitzhak Wazana is a 46-year-old course manager at Ariel University in Ariel settlement, home to some 18,000 people. The municipality of Ariel sits on several plots owned by Palestinians who are not allowed to visit their land.

Wazana first came to live in Ariel after he and his family were uprooted from Netzarim, the last settlement in the Gaza Strip to be evacuated before the territory was handed back to Palestinians in 2005.

“After being uprooted from Netzarim in Gaza, we came here for a few weeks to wait for a permanent solution to our housing situation,” he said. “The warm reception we got during those hard times from the people of this town created an immediate connection to the place.”

Wazana called allegations that he and his family live on occupied land “a propaganda claim.”

“A nation cannot be an occupier in its own land, certainly not when there has never been another political or ethnic entity here with special linkage to this land,” he said. “Every person of culture knows that the connection between our people and this land has deep roots. This is where the Bible gospel has come out from to the whole world and launched human culture.”

“For thousands of years our culture and religion have expressed it. To deny it would be a sort of genocide,” he added.

Wazana said that the Israeli government understood that residents had every right to live in Ariel but was not as vocal and clear about this attitude.

When asked whether he would consider leaving Ariel, he responded: “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. But if I judge by the way my family and I feel, never.”

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The land attracted teacher Reut Malichi to Abigail, an unauthorized settlement.

“The merging of the desert with the settlement and the mountain create a special atmosphere here,” said the 29-year-old teacher. “And maybe mainly the knowledge and the feeling that our fathers walked here, began their journey here and left a deep impression on this land.”

Contrary to popular perceptions that settlements were hindering any meaningful peace process, Malichi said they were the best chance for creating a deep and real peace.

“I think the Arabs here understand it very well. A land of conflict is a land worth being stubborn about,” she said. “I am here.”

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Restaurant owner Arik Dushi said his parents did not move the family to Ariel for ideological reasons.

“They came here for affordable living,” he said.

Nonetheless, the 30-year-old said the land captured in 1967 is Israel’s.

“I believe this land belongs to Israel and not to anyone else. It was given to us in the Bible. We didn’t take it from anyone.”

Dushi added that he didn’t believe communities like Ariel were “settlements.”

“They have their villages and we have our communities. We live together,” he said.

Dushi, whose partner at his restaurant is Palestinian, said he had more Arab friends than Jewish ones.

“In my opinion, there is no conflict,” he said. “There are no drawbacks to living here, only good things. Quality of life, good weather, good air, access to the rest of the country. We’re the heart of Israel.”

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Achicam Hilely, a builder in Abigail settlement, denies he is occupying land that belongs to someone else.

“Almost every Arab village here sits on the ruins of an ancient Jewish town, so I feel much more at home here. I am not an occupier, I just came back to my land,” the 28-year-old said. “You can't go complaining to the Australians for occupying Australia, or the Americans for occupying the Indians.”

The issue of whether to leave settlements like Abigail, which is considered illegal under Israeli law, is an existential argument, he said.

“The argument here is not about just another piece of land. If we won't be here, they will want to kick us out of Tel Aviv as well,” he added. “The point is our existence.”

Hilely said his wife was recently attacked while driving to Jerusalem.

“On the way stones were thrown at them. My wife's jaw was wounded, but thank God nothing happened to my daughter,” he said. “What kind of person can look in the eye of a woman and a two-month-old baby and throw a stone at them?” Nevertheless, he said that he is willing to have “a good relationship with any Arab who is interested.”

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Shira Recanati moved to the unauthorized settlement of Abigail after seeing “all the destruction and sorrow” involved in uprooting Israelis from Gaza in 2005.

“We were looking for a young new place, close to the land and nature,” the 33-year-old kindergarten teacher said. “Shortly before moving to Abigail, David, my husband, was released from army duty, and he looked for a place where he could build and contribute.”

Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria – a term used by many settlers and their supporters to describe the occupied West Bank – is rooted in the Bible, Recanati said.

“These areas were returned to Jewish ownership due to a war that was forced upon us in 1967 by neighboring countries,” she said. “Abigail is going through legal proceedings to make it a permanent settlement.”

Recanati rejected the idea that the settlements were an obstacle to peace with Palestinians and Arabs.

“Many gestures for peace were made by the Israeli side, and no such gestures were made from the other side: destruction of the flourishing Gaza settlements, evacuating people from their homes, destruction of agricultural lands and settlement,” she said. “But we did not get a hand of peace from them. I believe that this hatred is the obstacle to peace.”

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Inon Dimant said he moved to Abigail, an unauthorized settlement, because of the lifestyle.

“We were looking for a place with meaning where we could contribute. We live here because, if we don’t, the place will be taken by others,” said Dimant, an agricultural worker who is studying to become a teacher.

“According to our belief this land belongs to us from the days of our forefathers,” the 25-year-old said, adding that he saw no difference between the plot Abigail is located on and Tel Aviv.

Dimant admitted that it bothered him that settlers in Abigail were seen as illegitimate -- around the world and by some in Israel.

“We are aware of it every day. I still believe in our right to live and exist here,” he added.

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Orit Arfa grew up in Los Angeles and lived in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem before moving to Ariel.

Arfa recounted that Ariel was built on a so-called "mountain of death" because very little would grow in the area.

The public relations worker considers the settlement "a new frontier in a place with a pioneering spirit" and hopes to raise a family there. She admits to feeling scared when visiting nearby areas under Palestinian Authority control, such as Nablus or Ramallah.

"Jews have liberated the land through purchase, diplomacy, wars of survival and, now, the development of the area with opportunities for employment, education, medical care, and a better quality of life for everyone here," she said. "Ariel and surrounding Jewish communities are the key to peace. We offer the potential and reality of cooperation, co-existence, and the betterment of life for all people in the region, Arabs and Jews alike. Peace happens when we live with each other, not look down on each other or try to separate each other because of racial and religious differences. I say let's make the best of our resources and our lives, together. Stop the hate."

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Elisha Medan fell in love with the south Mount Hebron area and its people while completing military service there.

The 34-year-old hydrologist said he had "always dreamed of establishing a new settlement" before learning of Abigail.

"I think the idea that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and co-existence is wrong," he said. "On the contrary: the settlements can be a model to the lives of Jews and Arabs. Peace will come from the understanding that Arabs should and can live with and alongside Jews."

Dave Copeland