ELI, West Bank (Reuters) - When God ordered Abraham to slaughter a son, the angel of the Lord stepped in at the last minute to stay his hand. Was it a test of faith, or had Abraham’s imagination simply run away with him?
Scholars may differ, but to many Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, the story is as real as the airy heights and rocky slopes where Hebrew and Philistine armies clashed in biblical times, and where they live today.
This makes it hard to discuss rationally a resolution of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel over its occupation of West Bank land since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
“That’s Highway 60. It’s been there since Abraham,” says Eliana Passentin, pointing to the road in the valley beneath her home in Eli on an 850 metre (2,700 foot) mountaintop, where “on a clear day you can see all the way to Tel Aviv”.
Passentin, a 34-year-old former Californian with 6 children, did not build her spacious villa here for the stunning geography or the government subsidies. Every view from every window, she says, looks onto a piece of recorded biblical history.
“There’s room here in Israel for everyone,” she insists. But “I don’t believe we’re on the way to peace. There’s a lot of hatred towards us.” She teaches her children to “respect but suspect”, she says. “If my children hear Arabic here on the hill, maybe they should be scared.”
The 250,000-strong settler community is not monolithic and not all take the bible literally. But those who do believe they are following God’s word, and have His blessing for recovering the holy land of Israel for its chosen people.
Settlers deny their towns are an illegal obstacle to peace. On a tour they organised this week to redress a negative image in foreign media, they cited scripture going back 3,500 years to explain why a land-for-peace swap was out of the question.
Yehudit Tayar talked about what “we” did in ancient times, as if recalling recent family history. “When we were crossing the desert,” she says. “When we first came back to Shilo” to worship the Holy Tabernacle “which our families did three times a year” back in the Iron Age.
It’s as if the intervening 3,000 years never happened.
Visitors to divided Jerusalem, only a half hour drive away, see checkpoints, watchtowers, teenagers with combat rifles and other daily manifestations of the occupation that might be removed almost overnight, if there was a peace deal.
But looking at the reality of the settlements, their tended gardens and schools, and listening to the passions that gave rise to them, makes it plain that persuading -- or even forcing -- Jews to give these up will be a far bigger challenge.
The red-tiled, stone houses of Kokhav Yaakov and nearby Psagot, a 20-year-old settlement, look like the 1950s suburbs of the American Dream, as drawn by Madison Avenue advertisers.
You can almost see a new Buick in the driveway. Kids’ bikes litter the watered lawns and wide sidewalks. Mom is baking apple pie in the kitchen. There’s no need to lock your door...
This is the innocent, idyllic gloss some put on settler life. But just beneath lies a hard bedrock of scripture.
“It was a tremendous rout for the Philistines and a tremendous victory for the Hebrews,” says Rabbi David Feld, a former American who sees the stark hillsides through a biblical prism and talks passionately, as if it all happened yesterday.
The ancients “had chariots, they were like our tanks,” he says with animation. He looks no further than the Book of Samuel to justify his place on occupied land.
“Israel has made peace with all the Arabs that want to make peace,” says Feld. “This is the biblical land of Israel.”
Yovram Cohen of the nearby Ofra settlement is a self-taught winemaker and native-born Israeli whose parents came from Tunisia. He produces his Tanya Vineyard Merlot and Cabernet reds, keeps parakeets, and ignores religious politics.
“I‘m not living here for political reasons. It’s just where I live, and I bought this land,” says the former paratrooper. Pressed about the threat of a land-for-peace swap, he says finally: “If ever it comes, I will face it, when I have to.”
Cohen is not a typical settler. Most of the 38 settlements of Israel’s Benjamin municipality are classified as “religious”.
Seen from the heights, they look like real-estate brochure images of neatly landscaped new towns -- apart from adjacent trailer camps which the settlers call “young communities” but Israel classifies as illegal outposts.
They crown rocky slopes terraced for centuries by Arab cultivators whose history the settlers want everyone to ignore.
Illegal or not, they are all the homes of Jews whom Israel would have to remove, if ever it opts to trade land for peace.
And now the settlers feel under threat, anxious that an election in February could vote in an unsympathetic majority.
In an unprecedentedly frank stand by an Israeli leader, outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert advocates withdrawal from almost all land taken in 1967 -- a hard idea to swallow for settlers cajoled and subsidised by successive governments.
Olmert also warns that Israel cannot tolerate vigilantes in the settler movement who undermine Israel’s position by trying to drive out Palestinian neighbours and even fight its police.
Former San Francisco Bay resident Passentin, whose house “like Joshua‘s” has the flat roof that Arab construction favours rather than the gabled, red-tiled settler model, says she feels “a strong feeling of connection to this land”.
“We are not bloodthirsty fanatics,” she says. Unlike Feld and his wife Tamar, who described militant settler youth gangs as “patriotic kids”, she condemns violence and says her neighbours feel the same.
If ever ordered to leave, she says, she will resist by legal means, not violent, and “would never hurt any of our soldiers”.
Others say the day of abandoning the land will never come.
“We are here to stay,” says Benjamin council head Avi Roeh. “We are people who believe we are here for a mission. It’s an act of Zionism, an act of patriotism.”
Editing by Dominic Evans