The settlers of Gilad's Farm defy America

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The Independent Online

On a dusty hilltop in the West Bank, where the hills stretch into the blue horizon, a group of young men sit under an open tent. One is strumming badly on a guitar and the others sing along happily. A small boy sits astride a white horse. A beautiful young mother holds a baby in her arms. There are a couple of shipping containers that have been converted into very basic homes.

With the young men's long hair, you could be forgiven for thinking Havat Gilad (Gilad's Farm) was some sort of hippie commune. In fact, these are some of the people who stand in the way of the Middle East peace process. They are Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. There are others who stand in the way of peace, the murderous suicide bombers of Hamas, for example.

But the settlers living here are opposing the road-map peace plan sponsored by President George Bush. Implementing the road-map, the Israeli army was supposed to pull down the shipping containers and dismantle the settlement yesterday. But as we arrived, a stream of army trucks was leaving, heading back to base. The settlers had just won a small victory in court: the court ordered the government to make inquiries into the settlers' claim that they own the land at Gilad's Farm before it could go ahead and evict them.

Yet Gilad's Farm is not all it appears to be. The young men do not live here: they are Jewish seminary students from Jerusalem who are brought by bus several days a week. They come because they are ideologically committed to a Jewish presence in the West Bank, but they go home to Jerusalem because they do not want to live all the time in a shipping container. Their presence means Gilad's Farm is inhabited.

Three couples claim to live here permanently. One of the women, Dvora Duckan, says her mother grew up in Derby. One of the other couples have two children. But what are they doing up here in the first place? Rivka Shimon, the mother of Bat Zion Zar, one of the women living here, explains. "There is no legal claim for the land unless you read the Bible," she says. "God gave this land to the Jewish people. We are special." There is no aggression as she speaks. She has the self-righteous calm of someone convinced she is right.

Gilad's Farm was set up by the father of her son-in-law, after his other son Gilad, a settler, was murdered by Palestinian militants who ambushed his car and shot him a few miles away. The official line from the settlers is that people live here in memory of the dead man.

But Ms Shimon gives the game away. "If you look around Israel, where there are towns and cities today, this is how they all started, like this." The settlements were started by ideological settlers who moved into the occupied territories without government permission and lived in a few caravans, much like Gilad's Farm today. Those settlements grew into fully fledged towns with the Israeli government's blessing and funding, and that is what the settlers want for Gilad's Farm.

Ms Shimon is unperturbed at taking on President Bush. "Britain was a big empire until they put their hands on us," she says. "When they started preventing us returning to Israel they became a small and unimportant country.

"What happened in the US with al-Qa'ida is the same thing. It was because the US was pushing us to leave our land. If they do the Israeli nation good, God rewards them. If they do harm to the Israeli nation, they suffer. It's not something I like to say, but ..."

And if the settlers' court action fails and the Israeli army returns to pull down Gilad's Farm? "We will never fight them. My son is going into the army soon. They are all our children," she says. "But we will come back when they leave."

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