Our Other War

JERUSALEM—On July 26, the Israeli army suffered a historic blow when eight men from the elite Golani Brigade were killed in a battle in southern Lebanon. The papers reported that two of the men were from a settlement called Eli in the occupied West Bank, and I went to the town a few days later.

Eli is a 40-minute cab ride from Jerusalem on a highway that bypasses the Palestinian city of Ramallah. The landscape is high desert, with limestone outcroppings and olive groves. Some of what I’d read about the military occupation I could now see: numerous checkpoints, the high gray separation fence to the west, green cylindrical watch towers monitoring no-man’s lands. And, most notably, bulldozed piles of boulders blocking access to the highway from the dirt roads leading to Palestinian villages. The villagers must follow a system of back roads to get into Jerusalem, and are subject to long waits at checkpoints. Of course, there is a reason for this: During the intifada, this highway was a battle zone. Many settlers were killed on it.

At Eli, an asphalt road curved up to an air-conditioned guardhouse, from which a very big man with a silver beard and shorts, and an M-16 slung over his shoulder, came out to the car and looked over my passport. His name was Yehuda Honickman, and as it turned out, he was from New York. He moved to Israel 20 years ago and came out here to pioneer the Jewish nation. The only thing he missed back home? The jazz scene.

Mr. Honickman told my Arab driver (in Hebrew) how to get to the Merhavia house, where they were sitting shiva for one of the soldiers. A man there, Lior Shtul, spoke English. The other house, that of Major Ro’i Klein, was not as receptive.

The stucco houses of the settlement stood on the ridgeline 250 feet above the road in a fortress-like manner, with solar panels on the clay roofs tilted to the south. Inside, the little colony felt like a desert subdivision in Arizona. We passed a supermarket with a big poster advertising Crocs sandals, a clinic, basketball courts and a modern stone-veneer synagogue. The Merhavia house was obvious. Many cars were parked outside. As I walked down the red sidewalk, a dignitary and his entourage were leaving.

The family was sitting shiva at the back, under a black canopy stretched out from the house to the almond trees. Thirty people sat in the shade, and one man had a Bible open. Young men came and went, fit and strong. Girls walked by in long skirts. I sat off to the side near a pile of children’s bicycles with Mr. Shtul.

A good-natured redhead, Mr. Shtul said that Lt. Amihai Merhavia had been 24 when he died, and left nine brothers and sisters. His father had said, “Amihai is still with us. We are not nine, we are 10.”

The boy was a fighter from the start, Mr. Shtul said. His name meant “My Nation, Alive.” He had his bris in the Sinai, where his father had moved in 1982 to express solidarity with the settlers who were being uprooted when that occupied territory was restored to Egypt.

The father, Moshe, was a patriarch of these settlements. An old iron plow lay near us, apparently a relic of Moshe’s first settlement 22 years ago in Ofra, a few miles south. He had then moved on to Eli. These little colonies along ridgelines in the heart of the West Bank violate the Fourth Geneva Convention. They are intended to create a continuous Jewish presence from Jerusalem to the Jordan valley; Eli now comprises 600 families. Obviously it takes a zealous sort to move here, and many Israelis will tell you that these are religious crazies, a tiny minority. But the Palestinians surely see them differently, for the army patrols the roads to protect them, and the settlements’ entry roads are lined with flowers.

“Nobody can say this land does not belong to us. Our fathers were here. They bought this land,” Mr. Shtul said, speaking Biblically. “David bought Shem, and that is Jerusalem. Joseph bought Nablus. Abraham bought Hebron when he wanted to bring Sarah to this place. When Jacob had his dream about the angels on the ladders, it was in Bet El, very near here. Shilo [just down the road] was the Jewish capital for 369 years, much longer than Washington. No one can say that we came out here and took a land that did not belong to us. Our history is here, more than Tel Aviv.”

Lieutenant Merhavia and Major Klein were buried in the nearby cemetery, and Mr. Shtul said the settlers would never leave.

“The terror wants to push us into the sea,” he said. “The test is Lebanon and Gaza, when we pulled out of those places. Now you see what we’re getting—more war. We are sitting shiva here because of the test.”

Mr. Shtul had to take a phone call from a friend Jerry, visiting from Baltimore. The settlement has a sister congregation in that city called Shomrei Emunah. The relationship began three years ago, when the settlement lost another soldier, killed on the road I had taken in. Shomrei Emunah had planted a grove in his honor.

The shiva seemed defiant—everyone in the settlement knows someone who has been killed. Mr. Honickman, the guard, had recently married the widow of a friend, who was shot as he drove on the road. And Lieutenant Merhavia had written a book about his friend Shmuel Weiss, a medic who had died in Jenin.

My name’s Weiss; I asked if I could move here, even though I was not observant. “Of course you are welcome here,” Mr. Shtul said. Settlers are wanted, to put facts on the ground. Not everyone in the community is religious, but they are all dedicated to the Jewish nation extending to the Jordan, on lands that make up less than a quarter of the former Mandate Palestine. Two American Presidents have said that those lands should become a Palestinian state, but they have had less impact here than a synagogue in Baltimore.

I’d always heard how tough it is being in Israel and Palestine, and it’s true. All day you hear a bitter narrative, first from one side, then the other. Trying to hold the narratives in your head is a nightmarish mental task. The same ambush that resulted in the Baltimore Jews planting a grove for Eli had been described to me with pleasure by my Arab driver, noting the obsolete machine gun the gunman used and the cigarette he put down in the grass between killings. He calls the West Bank “a prison camp.” And at my guesthouse, a woman from Wisconsin had told me that she will go home and tell people about the “racism” she saw here, of teenage soldiers harassing Arabs at checkpoints.

Two girls offered me crackers, and I sat with them as they leafed through books of Merhavia’s letters and photographs. There was an e-mail from an Army buddy named Philip Blumenfeld, recalling Merhavia’s response when they had first joined the army and their commander had said that two men must stay at the base that Sabbath. “Everyone wanted to go home and show off their new uniform, their new gun,” he wrote. “Everyone wanted to see their friends, their family and get a hug, a kiss. Some of mother’s good cooking.” But Merhavia had instantly volunteered to stay, and a second boy had popped up after him.

The photo album showed a skinny athletic blond boy growing up—almost. Merhavia had loved the outdoors. He’d swum in the rivers, hiked the hills, lifted his sister with wiry muscular arms. He’d gone on to yeshiva in Jerusalem. In the most recent photos in his olive uniform, he was rangy and smiling, loose-limbed, beautiful.

One of the girls spoke English and had great presence, a girl with light coloring and a full mouth, named Avital. She was 16 and barefoot and wore a denim skirt. A diamond stud glittered on the left side of her nose. She and many other girls had come to sit with Amihai’s sister.

“Tehila needs somebody,” she said. “She has memories of Amihai when she is sleeping.”

Avital was mournful, but I sensed sophistication in her and wanted to draw her out. I asked her how her parents had felt about her pierced nose.

They were both against it. “But it was not a mad, closed situation,” she said. “I went to my mother and talked about it; I had her permission. I talked about it with my father and he didn’t want me to do it …. When I did it, I called him and told him. He said, ‘Oh I’m so happy’ and hung up the phone.”

Her brothers had made it easier. They weren’t religious, and her father, who is very religious, has had to accept them. “He was mad and disappointed with me, but he loves me,” she said. Her father is a member of the Knesset, in a religious party associated with the settlers called Ichud Leumi. Are you right-wing? I asked her. “Oh, yeah.”

It was hard to think of Avital as having political ideas. Despite her presence, she was girlish. Her T-shirt said “The Cat in the Hat,” with his picture. In a year, she said, she will get the letter telling her when she is to join the army.