The seizure of three Israeli teenagers from a popular hitchhiking stop inside a West Bank settlement bloc has shattered the illusion of peace harboured by many Jewish settlers.
After years of relative quiet following the violence of the second intifada or uprising (2000-2005), Gush Etzion found itself back in the headlines this week after the disappearance of three students Israel says were kidnapped by Hamas militants.
“This kidnapping has sent shockwaves through all the residents of Gush Etzion,” says regional council head David Perel.
“We feel like they were kidnapped from our homes, on a road where everyone drives without thinking of the dangers.”
Security sources say the three students were seized late on June 12 as they waited for a ride on a main road outside Kfar Etzion, the first settlement established in the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War.
Gilad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, both 16, are students at the Mekor Haim religious boarding school in Kfar Etzion. The third, 19-year-old Eyal Ifrach, was studying at a Jewish seminary in a settlement in Hebron.
– Thumbs up for hitchhiking –
Although most settlers are shaken by a kidnapping on their doorstep, it is not enough to make them change their ways.
For settlers in the occupied West Bank, hitchhiking is one of the most popular ways of getting around.
“For a long time, we have been asking the government for a bigger budget for public transport but hitchhiking is a way of life that we can’t do without,” says Perel, dismissing the hazards.
Waiting by the roadside for a car to take her home, 17-year-old Hadass Halpert shrugs off concern.
“We can’t give up this means of transport,” she tells AFP, while admitting she is “careful” to check who is offering the ride before getting in.
“Normal life must go on, we cannot let them win,” she adds of the “terrorists who would like to stop us from living here”.
“I’m not afraid,” says 33-year-old Amir Gurevitch, waiting for a ride to the settlement where he teaches.
“For me, the main thing is to keep my normal routine, even if you end up thinking a bit more about the potential dangers.”
Since the teens disappeared, Gush Etzion regional council has warned residents to be careful when hitchhiking, and Mekor Haim school has banned its pupils from thumbing rides.
– Shattering the rural idyll –
Ten miles (16 kilometres) south of Jerusalem, Kfar Etzion was built in September 1967 on the ruins of a kibbutz set up during the British Mandate (1920-1948) and destroyed during the 1948 war which accompanied Israel’s establishment.
As the number of settlements in the area grew, it attracted many people lured by the rural lifestyle and affordable property prices. Today, 20,000 Israelis live there.
Every day, hundreds of Palestinians work in the settlement bloc, and at the Rami Levi supermarket, a popular chain known for its cheap prices, 40 percent of the employees are Palestinian.
As news of the teens’ disappearance spread, the Yesha Settlers Council urged Jewish communities across the West bank to refuse entry to their Palestinian workforce to put pressure on the local population, with dozens of settlements complying.
But Oded Revivi, mayor of Efrat settlement, has spoken out against such a move.
“This type of action can only reinforce hatred and fear; our neighbours are not responsible for this act of terror,” he wrote in a public letter.
Despite everything, settler leaders say they are not deterred.
“We are going to become stronger, continue to build and show the world that we are here to stay for ever,” Perel says.
More than half a million Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.
The international community sees all Israeli settlement on land seized during the 1967 war as illegal, and ongoing construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state is viewed as one of the biggest obstacles to a peace agreement.
“What did we expect, that all the Palestinians would sit back quietly and cave in as the Israeli occupation grew stronger?” Yariv Oppenheimer, head of Israel’s settlement watchdog Peace Now, wrote in an editorial.
“What were we thinking, that the quiet would be preserved for ever and that the Etzion Bloc would become a pastoral tourist site with no memory of the Palestinians?
“The other sideâs loss of hope, Israeli arrogance and unwillingness to compromise have blown up in our faces.”