The number of Israeli settlers in Judea and Samaria today exceeds more than 350,000 people. While world leaders discuss the legal status of the settlements, the ongoing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis characterize the everyday life of people living in the region. In Rimonim, one of more than 200 Jewish settlements surrounded by fences in the West Bank, security guards patrol day and night. Even though, some settlers constantly fear for the safety of their families. Staying or leaving? The unspoken question that divides the Rimonim settlement.
RIMONIM, West Bank – In even intervals, a yellow flashlight breaks through the darkness. It is attached to the roof of a white Jeep, slowly driving on a winding gravel path in Rimonim, an Israeli settlement, located northeast of Jerusalem. Ran Shal is sitting behind the steering wheel, an M16-rifle slung over his right shoulder and a pistol fixed to his right thigh. Under his dark-blue sweater, both arms are covered with tattoos. “I always carry a weapon with me,” Ran says, “we have to protect our families and our land.” Ran is one of fifteen volunteers, patrolling the settlement during the night on a rotating basis.
Ran has been living in Rimonim for three years. Once a month, he takes over a night shift. “We want our neighbors and friends to feel safe while they are sleeping,” he explains, while steering the car around the next turn. Ran slows down and stops next to the ruins of an old fortress. The lights of Jordan sparkle in the distance, as the shores of the Dead Sea are outlined by the shimmering moonlight. Ran looks out the opened window, scanning the double barbed wire fence, which surrounds the settlement like a city wall. “The security fence was damaged a couple of times,” Ran says, “if we detect something unusual, we always take it very seriously.” The people in Rimonim live in constant fear of a terror attack. “Only a few days ago, an Israeli from a neighboring settlement was shot in his car,” Ran says, “just five minutes away from here.”
Ran has given up the hope that in the near future Israelis and Palestinians can live peacefully next to each other. “With some Arabs, we have close relations,” he says. Each day, Palestinians from the surrounding villages come to Rimonim for work. “We talk, eat and laugh together. But still, we cannot trust them,” Ran says. In Rimonim, the workers are supervised all the time. Ran points at a small wooden house, in which Leo Yahay lives.
In fall, the 24-year-old man will start his studies. Until then, Leo works in his home village, earning thirty-five Shekels an hour. At seven oʼclock in the morning, he picks up the Palestinian workers at the entrance gate and accompanies them until five oʼclock in the afternoon. But for Leo, they are not his enemies, they are his friends, he says: “We oversee them not because they are Arabs, we watch them because they are strangers.”
Liat Cohen (*name has been changed to protect privacy) also lives in Rimonim. She was one of the fifteen families who built the first houses on the hill in 1977. “It was and still is very cheap here,” she says, “this was the main reason, why we decided to move from Jerusalem to this place.” She is convinced that ideology plays a minor role when families resettle to Rimonim. In contrast to most of the Israeli villages in the West Bank, the majority of the citizens in Rimonim are not deeply religious. “There are only a few orthodox families living here,” she explains, “we get along very well.” The strong sense of cohesion and trust among the community is very important to them. Mainly, because they know that Israelis make up only seventeen percent of the approximately 2,7 million people living in the West Bank ‒ A number that sometimes intimidates Liat.
Liat loves Rimonim: “I am deeply connected to that place. I created it.” However, as she grew older, she became disillusioned. Now, she is sitting on the sofa in her living room and has stopped believing that there is a real chance for peace. “A few years ago, I always went to Palestinian villages to do my shopping,” she says. Nowadays, she cannot do that anymore, since Israeli people are not allowed to enter most of the Palestinian territories. Red signs mark the restricted areas with “Ahead no entry for Israelis” written on them in three languages: Arabic, Hebrew and English. Especially at night, the road, leading from Rimonim to Jerusalem, is dangerous, Liat says.
Two days ago, she was at a wedding in Jerusalem. As darkness fell, she was too afraid driving back to Rimonim and ended up at a friend’s place. It is this fear that makes her longing to leave the West Bank. “If the government gave me money or another house, I would leave this place immediately,” she says without hesitating. She is wrinkling her forehead, staring at the glass table in front of her. “A lot of people have the same thoughts, but no one says it out loud,” Liat says, while passing her mobile phone from one hand to the other.
Back in the security truck, Ran says that for him there is no alternative: “We will never, never, never give up that land!” he emphasizes, while continuing his drive. By now, it is already three oʼclock in the morning. Ran is not tired, he is still focused on checking the fence.
Despite many countries consider the establishment of settlements in the so-called Israeli-occupied territories as illegal under international law, Ran would never leave the West Bank. “It is our right to live here. This is why we want to build more settlements,” Ran says, while driving downhill, slowly making his way towards the massive entrance gate of the settlement.
Three dogs start barking, pulling the leash. Baruch Bakin steps out of the small, white cabin next to the barrier. He lights a cigarette, putting his hands on the machine gun, which is draped around his neck. “My dogs are my protectors,” he says, “Muslims are afraid of dogs.” Baruch is the second security guard that night. But he is not volunteering, Baruch is employed by the government, as a security officer.
Baruch works five, sometimes six nights a week, from eleven oʼclock at night until seven oʼclock the next morning. Before the Russian-born security officer moved to Rimonim, he was responsible for the safety of eighty Jewish families in East Jerusalem.
In contrast to his previous job, the night shifts in Rimonim are calm, he says. Next to a sink on the backside of the building, a punching bag dangles from an iron chain. “Sometimes I join Ran in the car, but mostly I train my dogs or do my boxing workout,” Baruch says. Since there has never been a major incident in Rimonim, this is how Baruch spends most of the quiet nights in the village.
Meanwhile, the lights of Liat’s house went out. “I believe that the Palestinians in the surrounding villages, they do not want to harm us,” she says with a sparkle of hope in her eyes, closing the door behind her...
Text: Stefanie Delfs
Audio: Stefanie Delfs
Pictures: Živilė Raškauskaitė and Stefanie Delfs