Tekoa, West Bank — For the people who live here, the Jewish settlement of Tekoa is something akin to paradise. Built atop a mountain in the starkly beautiful Judean Desert, its comfortable homes afford a breathtaking view of the camel-colored cliffs that extend in all directions. Here and there Arab villages, as well as the nearby settlement of El David, dot the parched mountainsides, adding a bit of color to the desert landscape.
The settlement itself is awash with roses and marigolds, and an assortment of cactus plants. Some homes boast lush English-style gardens with evergreens and weeping willows; others have prickly cacti cropping out of the sandy earth. At Tekoa, how a family plants its garden depends on personal preference.
This respect for diversity extends to all areas of life in the 21-year-old settlement, which is home to 300 families. In a living arrangement that is almost unique in Israel, chasidic, Modern Orthodox, traditional and non-observant Jews live together in relative harmony.
“A sense of mutual respect has been built into our constitution,” notes member Daniel Yossef, a political activist and father of four. “There are people here who study day and night, and people who don’t go to synagogue on Yom Kippur. Somehow it works, making this an attractive place to live.”
Whether Tekoa, which is 45 miles southeast of Jerusalem, will continue to attract Israelis — it is constructing 50 new houses — will depend in large part on how much land, and which land, Israel ultimately hands over to the Palestinians.
If the agreement now being negotiated at summit talks in Maryland goes through, Tekoa reportedly will be sitting right on the rim of the world’s most politicized nature reserve.
In a complicated formula aptly dubbed “alphabet soup,” the first phase of the Oslo Peace Accord divvied up the West Bank into three categories: Area A, where Palestinians maintain all civil and security control; Area B, where the Palestinians have responsibility for all civil matters but the Israelis have jurisdiction over security; and Area C, where Israel has full responsibility for both civil and security matters.
In Maryland this week, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reportedly agreed that 13 percent of the land currently under Israeli security control (B or C) would be designated as Area A, and, consequently, would become the complete responsibility of the Palestinians. Israel insisted that 3 percent of the 13 percent must be a Palestinian nature reserve.
While the negotiating teams debated the West Bank’s fate at a secluded spot in Maryland, Tekoa residents pondered their future.
Some worried over a map that appeared in last week’s Hebrew daily Haaretz, which showed that the Palestinian nature reserve might be created right on the settlement’s doorstep. If the unofficial map is to be believed, the reserve could be designated as close as a mile or two from Tekoa, encompassing a wide tract of land in the largely uninhabited mountain range on the settlement’s eastern flank. Although the government flatly denies that it has decided where the reserve will be located, and insists that no maps have been drawn up, this has not prevented the settlers from worrying.
Even before Wye Plantation, Tekoans began to beef up security. “About six weeks ago Palestinian circles declared that settlers were fair game, so we doubled our guard duty shifts,” says Yossef. Noting that Tekoa is one of the few settlements that has chosen not to erect a security fence, he says, “building a fence has come up a lot in discussions lately.”
Like many of those interviewed, Vivian Brill, a former Brooklynite, feels that closer proximity with the Palestinians will compromise not only Tekoa’s security but its image.
“I don’t know Area A from Area B, but obviously the thought of having Palestinian police right on top of us is frightening,” says the English teacher, sitting in her living room. “We’re a growing community, but I’m afraid that political decisions could discourage people from coming here. I’m afraid that the political situation isn’t good for any of our communities.”
Although Yael Amiel, a mother of three, isn’t afraid to live on the West Bank, and drives through Arab villages (there is no bypass road to Tekoa) at night, she says “there is always the potential for bad things to happen, especially if Israeli soldiers are no longer in control of a road or a village. The more land we give, the more potential there is for violence, and for terrorists to escape into Palestinian-ruled villages. That happened just last week after a terrorist attacked two people outside Jerusalem.”
Like many Israelis, Amiel expresses the belief that the Palestinians “really don’t know what a nature reserve means. I think they’ll just start building there.” Even if they don’t, she says, “I doubt whether the animals and plants will go undisturbed.” She fears that the Palestinians won’t dispose of their waste, and that it will ultimately find its way into Israel’s water supply. “This is also part of their warfare against us. Biological warfare,” she says.
For Rabbi Menachem Froman, the Maryland peace talks are only a formality.
“They talk about peace at Wye Plantation, but on the ground there isn’t any peace,” insists Froman, an Orthodox member of Tekoa. “We made a deal with the Palestinians, but you don’t see fewer stones being thrown. If anything, there are more incidents.”
Froman, who has had many controversial meetings with Palestinian intellectuals and clerics, says that he believes in the potential for peace, but that the time isn’t ripe for a second redeployment.
“Two weeks ago, an Israeli poets’ organization contacted me because they know I have Palestinian contacts,” Froman recalls. “They asked me to arrange a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian poets, and I made some phone calls. I contacted a well-known Palestinian and she told me she was dying to come, but that she couldn’t participate. Why? Because she thought she would be killed. So I called the PA and asked them to give her protection. They told me that they couldn’t help me.”
In one of the 50 houses under construction, a Palestinian building worker named Samir says that he is praying for peace, and for a homeland for his people. “We don’t live in peace and we need to,” says the 39-year-old father of five, whose deeply lined skin makes him look closer to 50. “Sometimes, when there’s trouble, the Israeli soldiers close the roads, making it impossible for me to work from my village.”
Standing on a cliff overlooking what may soon be Palestinian territory, Yossef sums up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a few words.
“We are two people with different ideologies and religions. Both love the land and feel they have roots here. There are things going on in Washington, but what’s important are the casual encounters Jews and Arabs have. That’s the life-creating force.”