Shilo, West Bank — Moriya Shapira vividly recalls the day when her father, one of the founders of this West Bank settlement 28 miles north of Jerusalem, pulled her out of bed and brought her to see the large ceramic jars archaeologists had discovered in ancient Shilo, the biblical pilgrimage site where, archaeologists and historians believe, the biblical Mishkan (Tabernacle) stood for 369 years.
“It was 35 years ago and I was 4 years old. My father wanted me to see the jars our forefathers used 3,000 years ago to store the items people brought to the Mishkan,” the Israelites’ portable Tabernacle, said Shapira, now a mother of five, as she stood before a display case built at ancient Shilo containing some of the thousands of artifacts discovered there.
Decades of excavations have uncovered mikvahs, Jewish burial sites dating to the Second Temple Period, Jewish coins, storehouses from the time of the Mishkan and what was likely the site of the Tabernacle itself.
Excavations have also revealed the site’s Caananite culture, three ancient churches, a mosque as well as magnificent mosaic floors. One bore the Greek inscription “village of Shiloh.”
Shapira, now a tour guide who heads ancient Shilo’s visitors’ center, said the site, which affords a view of the modern Shilo’s homes, is living proof that Jews have ancient ties to the Land of Israel.
“When you come here and you see these Jewish roots with your own eyes, there can be no question that we lived here and belonged here,” Shapira said. “How can anyone question this?”
Last week, the Obama administration did just that when it issued an especially scathing condemnation of Israel’s plans — not yet fully approved — to build 98 apartments in the Shilo settlement bloc, part of a more ambitious plan to build 300 housing units.
The administration said the plans, which the anti-settlement NGO Peace Now publicized, go against a pledge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly made not to build new settlements.
Planning to build a new settlement, the administration implied, would demonstrate profound ingratitude to the Obama government so soon after it agreed to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid over the next decade.
Moriya Shapira, a member of modern Shilo’s founding families, heads the visitors’ center at ancient Shilo, believed to be the place where the Mishkan (Tabernacle) once stood. Michele Chabin
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said news reports of the planned construction “contradict … public assurances from the Israeli” not to build a new settlement. “So when you talk about how friends treat each other, this is also a source of concern.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry insisted that the 98 homes “do not constitute a ‘new settlement.’ This housing will be built on state land in the existing settlement of Shilo and will not change its municipal boundary or geographic footprint.”
A day later Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan acknowledged that Netanyahu did in fact tell President Obama that Israel would refrain from new settlement-building, but denied that the Shilo bloc plan constitutes a new settlement.
Hagit Ofran, director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch program, said the new housing, including 41 apartments earmarked for residents of Amona, an unauthorized outpost slated for destruction by Dec. 31, would be the start of a new settlement, not an expansion of an existing settlement.
“It’s not adjacent to anything,” Ofran said, explaining that the new housing would be built on a hilltop east of Shvut Rachel, a onetime unauthorized outpost that the government recognized retroactively.
Although the government calls Shvut Rachel, which has 94 existing homes, a neighborhood of the well-established settlement of Shilo, which has 3,500 residents, “I would say that Shvut Rachel is an independent settlement,” Ofran said, because it has its own independent governing committee.
Ofran said the hilltop where Shvut Rachel Bet may be built is more than a half mile away from Shvut Rachel and more than a mile away from Shilo.
While “any settlement activity is an obstacle to peace,” Ofran asserted, “what’s being called Shvut Rachel Bet is a new settlement, another hill [the government] is taking. Eventually, when we will need to evacuate some of the settlements, it will mean evacuating even more people.”
Yisrael Medad, a longtime resident of Shilo, noted that most of “Samaria” — the biblical term for the northern West Bank — “is checkered with communities” on various hilltops like a patchwork quilt, so the fact that Shvut Rachel Bet doesn’t adjoin Shvut Rachel Aleph doesn’t mean it won’t be part of the settlement.
Oded Revivi, chief foreign envoy of the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements as well as the mayor of Efrat, accused Peace Now of “having an agenda.”
“Peace Now made some sort of wild guess and the American administration isn’t checking the source and immediately condemned [the rumored building plan] even though nothing has been decided or implemented,” Revivi said. “There was a High Court judgment saying the houses in Amona must be demolished and the government wants to do this with as little damage as possible. There are discussions with legal advisers but no clear solution yet.”
Revivi believes the U.S. administration’s harsh response to last week’s news reports will factor into the Israeli government’s final decision on the new settlement homes.
Israel “has always worked in coordination with the U.S. administration, and I think the American response” regarding Shvut Rachel Bet “will be taken into account during any decision-making.”
Gadi Taub, an expert on settlements at the Hebrew University, emphasized that American and Israeli leaders have clashed before, many times.
“This is not a new controversy. It goes back to the Carter administration and Menachem Begin,” when the two publicly clashed over the terms of Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai.
Although Netanyahu’s settlement policies “contradict” his vows to work toward a two-state solution, Taub said, the Palestinians are also saying one thing and doing another.
“The greatest obstacle to a two-state solution is the Palestinians’ refusal to give up the right of return for refugees and their descendants into Israel proper.” Such a demand, Taub said, “is the Palestinian parallel of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Both work against partition, not for it.”
Walking past the many sites at ancient Shilo where workers were excavating, Shapira recalled how, as a child, she and her siblings used to hide in the caves and water tunnels and search for 3,000-year-old pottery shards.
“The Tanakh [Bible] was like our GPS,” she said with a smile. “Sometimes I imagine [the biblical] Hannah standing here and praying or Shmuel in the Mishkan.”
To Shapira, the return of Jews to “Judea and Samaria” after two millennia is a modern-day miracle. “We came back after 2,000 years of yearning. We’re here to stay,” she said.