Living illegally in the West Bank

'We trust the universe, we trust the earth, we trust God, that whoever needs to be here will be here,' resident says.

Jonathan Brown, Marco Bottelli | | Politics, Israel, Palestine, Law

Neve Erez, occupied West Bank - Yael and Chanoch Horn-Danino had not planned to move to Neve Erez for weeks. Then, one day last month, a neighbour phoned Chanoch at work: "There's a government bulldozer outside your house here; it doesn't look good. Do you want to me get anything from inside before they bulldoze it?"

The young couple got lucky. The bulldozer rolled passed their home, a defunct Tel Aviv bus they had cleared land for and converted by adding a kitchen and bathroom. Fearing their government was more likely to destroy an unoccupied house, they hastily moved into their unfinished bus ahead of schedule.

Home for Yael and Chanoch is now Neve Erez, an illegal Israeli settlement or "outpost" in the occupied West Bank. The arid hilltop is on the cusp of the desert, a site originally meant as a cemetery for the nearby Maale Michmash settlement. On a clear day, the Dead Sea is visible from Neve Erez's pre-fab synagogue.

Since settling on the barren hilltop near Jerusalem in 1999, Neve Erez has been under perpetual legal arbitration: Only eight months after the settlement was founded, Israeli authorities ordered it to be evicted, ruling the homes had been built without authorisation and on privately owned Palestinian land. But after a year, assuming the government had forgotten them, residents returned. Cofounder of Neve Erez, Tahilla Cohen, remembers this as the 16-month "exile".

In daylight hours, gunfire rattles from border police training grounds nearby, while in the mornings and evenings, residents say they hear bells from the Bedouin herds that graze over an abandoned military base on an adjacent hilltop. Though a main road winds around Neve Erez, cars pass infrequently. 

Despite being illegal according to Israeli and international law, Neve Erez has continued to expand since the "exile", albeit gradually. Yael and Chanoch only gained permission to live in Neve Erez after being interviewed by each community member individually. "We trust the universe, we trust the earth, we trust God, that whoever needs to be here will be here," Cohen said.


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