Per Jönsson
Last updated: 3 February, 2013

The settler capital – a militarily isolated island on the West Bank

The Jewish settler city of Ariel at the geographical centre of the occupied West Bank attracts all sorts of Israelis and recently got its own national university. Still, Ariel remains a militarily isolated island on historically disputed soil.

This piece of land on the West Bank used to be called the “Hill of Death”, or Jabal Mawat in Arabic, due to the wild and barren landscape that was impossible to cultivate or even use for raising sheep and goats. Nowadays, the same hill is called “Lion of God”, Ariel, a Hebrew name that symbolises boldness or courage but also the Israeli tribe of Judah in the Old Testament.

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When, after a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv, the bus enters the settler city of Ariel it is neither infertile wilderness nor divine boldness that characterizes the sensory impressions. Instead, the bus travels along endless lines of almost identical grey-white terraced houses, interrupted only by road roundabouts, slices of park, and industrial barns. Very few people are outdoors, although it is in the middle of a weekday.

The exception is found in the eastern corner of the city, where students swarm between the lecture halls and dormitories of Ariel University. When the settler college was granted full university status in December 2012 it attracted attention both as a triumph and scandal. A triumph for the Israeli settler movement, since Ariel University is Israel’s first new university in more than three decades, and the first ever on the occupied West Bank. A scandal, since this civilian institution of learning was not inaugurated by the country’s education minister but by its defence minister and the military commander in Judea and Samaria, as the West Bank is nowadays officially called in Israel.

But it is mostly Israeli peace apostles, Palestinians and European critics of Israel who talk about a scandal. Ariel University’s full accreditation is entirely in line with the current dominating view in Israel that it is the settlers and not Palestinians who henceforth shall put their mark on the West Bank. And Ariel, which is at the geographical centre of the occupation, has been declared the “capital of Samaria” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Ever since this settlement was established in 1978 it has attracted a broad spectrum of Israelis, not least because it is within commute distance from Tel Aviv. At the most, apartments and houses in Ariel command half the price of what they cost in the cities along the cost. This has attracted a lot of people with limited incomes to move there, particularly among the million immigrants who came to Israel from Russia during the 1990s – today almost every third citizen of Ariel is of Russian decent.

Settlements like Ariel also attract a large share of ultraorthodox Jews with big families, who can’t afford housing in Israel. Today, mote than 30 per cent of the 400,000 settlers in the West Bank are ultraorthodox, compared to less than 5 per cent two decades ago. This is partly a result of their much higher birth rate than other Israelis. According to the latest statistics, Israeli families on average have 2.4 children and the average settler family 5.1 children. If you only look at ultraorthodox families in Israel they have an average of 6.5 children while the figure for ultraorthodox West Bank families is 7.7 children. If this trend continues, 40 per cent of the settlers on the West Bank will be ultraorthodox Jews by 2020.

Still, you don’t notice that many corkscrew curls, long beards and black hats during a walk in Ariel. The inhabitants that are seen in the streets are busier with shopping and other everyday shores than a deep dive into biblical studies.

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But on the way through the roadblock out from the capital of Samaria the visitor learns that Ariel remains a militarily isolated island on the occupation’s ”Wild West Bank”. Soldiers with automatic carbines, bulletproof vests and hand detectors meticulously control that unknown travellers don’t have prohibited gear or intentions. Palestinians should not bother to even approach Ariel.

Translated from Swedish by David Hedengren.