Settlers cultivate West Bank tourism to tighten grip on land
RECHELIM, West Bank
RECHELIM, West Bank (Reuters) - The bulletproof van is extra.
Welcome to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Jewish settlements built on land Palestinians seek for a state are opening their gates to foreign tourists and Israeli visitors.
A one-day tour, booked through a regional settler council, costs $50. An additional $80 secures the armored bus.
Palestinians, or "local Arabs" in the words of settlers who spoke to one group of visitors, are not on the itinerary.
"We are not monsters," Ilana Shimon told a clutch of tourists this week, leading them through Havat Gilad, a small settlement outpost built without Israeli government authorization.
"I'm against violence. All we want is to sit on our land and we want you to be our ambassadors," Shimon told her visitors near her home in Havat Gilad, where she lives with 30 other families, making up about 250 people, most of them children.
Her audience, comprised of seven non-Jewish tourists from Belgium, France, the United States and the Indian Ocean island of Reunion, seemed to agree.
"The world needs to know the truth, all they see is the violence," Aline Boyer from Reunion said.
About 300,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, occupied by Israel in a 1967 war and home to 2.5 million Palestinians. The World Court has ruled the settlements illegal.
Although violence has mostly subsided since a 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising, clashes between settlers and Palestinians are not uncommon, along with mutual accusations of vandalizing crops, fields, private property and holy shrines.
The placid vista presented to the tourists include organic farms offering an assortment of goat cheese and yoghurt, as well as flourishing vineyards that produce boutique wines.
Palestinians see things very differently -- the settlements, they fear, will deny them a viable state, and an Israeli barrier is cutting through the West Bank, a project they condemn as a land grab and which Israel says is necessary for security.
The tour took the group through several small settlements, some of them built without official permission by settlers who see themselves as pioneers exercising their claim to a Biblical birthright to the land.
Sitting round a wooden table eating a rustic meal of goat cheese, yoghurt and eggs, Daniel and Catherine Lippert from Belgium gave their impressions of their Israeli hosts in an organic dairy farm near the settlement of Itamar.
"The media portrays the settlers as crazy, violent obstacles to peace and we want to tell everyone at home what we saw," Catherine said.
The tour group's members defined themselves as former Christians who believe Jesus is the saviour but also abide by some Jewish ritual laws.
"We love Israel and pray together every Sabbath on Skype," said Simone Van Goethem, from Belgium.
Daniel Lippert said he and his wife come to Israel two or three times a year, but this was their first visit to the West Bank. "We donated money to Havat Gilad last year because it is the right thing to do," Daniel said. "God promised the land to the Jews. The Palestinians should become Israeli citizens or leave."
Nati Yisraeli, tourism coordinator for the settlers' regional council, said he hoped the tours would "end ignorance, by bringing people to see for themselves."
"We want people to know what they're talking about when they discuss the future of the settlements. We want them first to experience the place, the people." he said.
Yisraeli said the number of tourists rose to almost 100,000 in 2010 from 45,000 in 2008. These include large Israeli groups which come mostly on Jewish holidays, as well as foreign tourists.
Yisraeli's eyes lit up each time he pointed out ancient sites. A quick detour through rolling hills dotted with olive groves and grape vines took the group near the Palestinian city of Nablus, where they admired, from a distance, Joseph's Tomb, believed by worshippers to be the burial site of the Jewish patriarch.
The group's next stop was the settlement of Itamar. As the vehicle approached, the driver checked that all had heard of the Fogel family, a couple and three of their children killed in the settlement in March. The killing was the most serious attack in years and shocked Israel, which has charged two Palestinian men with the murder.
In the small settlement of Rechelim, Vered Ben Saadon, owner of its Tura winery, said she lets her award-winning Cabernets and Merlots do the talking when it comes to winning hearts and minds.
"Talking politics sullies the wine's flavor. Our visitors, after getting to know the place, leave a little confused. They see a quality product and nice people who make it. It throws them off balance," Ben Saadon said.
In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said any future peace deal with the Palestinians would leave some settlements beyond Israel's borders suggesting that places like Rechelim, in remote areas, could be abandoned.
But Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since last year in a dispute over construction in Jewish settlements, with little sign of revival soon.
"There is no other explanation to our success other than divine providence," Ben Saadon said. "We didn't come here to make a business profit, we came here for the love of the land and as the years go by we see God is rewarding us."
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)