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Leaving America for the West Bank: Why are so many US citizens moving there?

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From behind a barbed wire fence, Ben Goldstein surveys the hilly landscape just beyond his backyard.

“When I look up and I see F-35 joint strike fighters with the Star of David underneath, 70 years after the Holocaust, I have to ask myself a question,” Goldstein said. “How can I not be a part of this?”

Goldstein and his family live in Gush Etzion, a cluster of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem, not far from Bethlehem in the West Bank. They moved here from Florida a few years ago and found a community of like-minded settlers.

“I didn't feel that in America, and I love the United States of America,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein is one of the 60,000 Americans who live in the West Bank, estimates historian Sara Hirschhorn, author of “City On A Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement."

Americans account for 15 percent of the settler population, compared to roughly 2 percent across Israel.

Hirschhorn, an Oxford University lecturer, says this group of Americans defies stereotypes.

“These weren't all Messianic Zealots or right-wing extremists, but young, highly educated, upwardly mobile American Jews who had been active in liberal-social movements in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, prior to immigrating to Israel-Palestine,” said Hirschhorn.

Settlement construction began after the Six-Day War in 1967. Settlers began moving onto the land — land Palestinians envision for their future state — in the 1970s, and since then, the number of settlers has grown to roughly 400,000. The American settlers, many of whom had backgrounds in the U.S. civil rights movement, didn’t abandon their progressive values upon moving to Israel, Hirschhorn said.

"They actually thought that they were applying them to their work within the Israeli settler movement.”

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After visiting Israel as tourists, and falling in love with the country, Shlomo Vile and his wife decided to move from Chicago. They chose Bat Ayin, a heavily fortified Israeli settlement not far from the separation barrier that divides Israelis from Palestinians.

Despite being just miles away from Palestinians, Vile says he rarely interacts with them.

"Peace will come when all the Jews recognize that this is their home and from that framework we can get along very peacefully with our neighbors."
Shlomo Vile, West Bank settler

Successive U.S. administrations have taken the position that settlements like the one Vile lives in are an impediment to peace. Continued settlement expansion in the West Bank, critics argue, undermines any chance for a two-state solution by creating so-called "facts on the ground."

Since President Trump’s inauguration, Israel has ramped up settlement building. In the days after Trump took office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the construction of 2,500 more housing units in the West Bank in one of the largest settlement expansion projects since 2013.

The Trump administration is a gift for the settlers, said Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch project at Peace Now, an Israeli NGO opposed to the settlements.

“They feel that they have America behind them supporting the most extremist policy of Israel in many, many years,” Ofran said.

President Trump's recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel isn't the only reason why the Netanyahu government views his administration favorably. Both Trump's U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his son-in-law adviser Jared Kushner, have donated to pro-settlement causes.

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And in a huge break with traditional U.S. policy, the White House issued a statement last February saying the settlements while not "helpful," were not an impediment to peace. More recently, President Trump has asked Israel to be “careful” with settlement expansion, but stopped short of asking for a halt in construction.

Hirschhorn says potential immigrants have likely taken notice.

“If they were sort of deliberating about what they might do if they were planning to immigrate or where they would settle, I think for them that's kind of a reassurance,” said Hirschhorn.

Yair Bendavid, a settler living in Gush Etzion's Kashuela Farms, says Trump’s approach to the settlement project is “very nice.”

“We see now that America looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a more real situation. They see reality as it is now,” Bendavid said.

Bendavid and his wife Tchiya are both the children of American immigrants and have dual nationality. They don't believe Americans back home understand their situation.

"A lot of people think they know about Palestinian, Israeli [conflict]. They think they know everything."
Yair Bendavid

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