Emboldened by Israeli PM and Trump, settlers transform West Bank

Guillaume Lavallee

Kedem Arava (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Around the time US President Donald Trump took office, a group of Israeli families more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) away started a wildcat settlement near the Dead Sea in the Palestinians territories.

In the three years since, it has become the outpost of Kedem Arava, home to 40 families. It is believed to be the first Israeli settlement of the Trump era, and one of dozens built under the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Today, barefoot children run around happily and race their bicycles between its mobile homes.

"It's a paradise for kids," said Ifat Lev, a 32-year-old mother-of-two living in the outpost near Jericho in the Jordan Valley.

"Since they turned two, they have been out with their friends, mixing like one family."

Palestinians and the international community may consider such outposts illegal and impediments to peace -- but to their residents, they're home and the families are determined to stay.

Kerem Arava, protected by the Israeli army and guarded by razor wire, is a close-knit community that celebrates what it sees a its youthful pioneering spirit.

"The oldest person here is 37," said Lev, gesturing to the small cluster of cabins that forms part of the vanguard of Israel's emboldened Jewish settler movement.

Israel on Monday faces its third election within less than a year, and embattled Netanyahu is banking on the support of the more than 450,000 settlers for his political survival.

In the decade since he took power, the settler population has shot up by 50 percent -- with growth spiking since his ally Trump moved into the White House in 2017.

- 'Not for the ideology' -

If both men have their way, such settlements will soon expand and become permanent.

Under Trump's controversial peace plan, the more than 130 West Bank settlements would become officially part of Israel.

For the Palestinians, European countries and the United Nations, they threaten the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

Israel, however, only distinguishes between those it sanctions and those it doesn't -- so-called outposts or wildcat settlements.

Kerem Arava is one of these, meaning residents cannot build homes with foundations, but the difference can be hard to spot.

On a recent day, workers were pouring cement at the base of temporary buildings to give them a permanent look, while a mini-digger churned up dust.

The settlers don't consider themselves extremists but rather residents of a new suburb of Jerusalem, located around 30 kilometres away -- albeit with better lives.

Monthly rent on a three-bedroom home in Kedem Arava is around 1,400 shekels (450 euro), a third of that in Jerusalem, said Lev.

Another resident, Ptachia Rechel, said he works for a high-tech firm in Jerusalem and commutes there every day -- enjoying both a city salary and a life connected to the land.

"We are not here for the ideology, we like the area," he said while taking a break from chopping wood. "Everyone here has young children and babies -- it's just fun."

- 'My homeland' -

Peace Now, an Israel non-government group that opposes the settlements, said around 20,000 new settlement housing units were constructed during the 'Netanyahu decade'.

Since Trump took power, according to the group, the number of new homes approved for construction tripled in the first year and has remained at roughly that level since.

Israeli officials say they aim to reach one million settlement residents in coming years.

Far-right Defence Minister Naftali Bennett this week announced nearly 1,800 new homes in West Bank settlements.

"We don't wait, we act," Bennett said in a statement. "We will not give an inch of the land of Israel to the Arabs, but for that, we must build there."

Under the Trump plan, small places like Kedem Arava could become towns or even cities -- like Ariel, which boasts a university, or a region like Gush Etzion which is now seeing its third generation of residents born.

"I don't call this a settlement. I call this my homeland," said Yehuda Leuchter, a musician who lives with his five children in Gush Etzion.

"We are here. We are not asking ourselves if we are supposed to be here. We are here."

Having grown up in settlements, another resident, Eliaz Cohen, said when he was younger, relations with neighbouring Palestinians were better.

"We had an open connection -- not very close and warm, but there were connections."

But after a Palestinian uprising and the construction of an Israeli security barrier in the early 2000s "a nine-metre fence was built in our hearts and souls, Israelis and Palestinians", he said.

Back in Kedem Arava, its manager Israel Rosenfeld has big plans.

"It is a new settlement that is going to be large," the young father said. "This is our home, we have no other place."