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Jewish Settlement In The West Bank Tied To Trump Administration


Now to the West Bank and a Jewish settlement with ties to members of the Trump administration. The Trump White House has broken from decades of U.S. policy on settlements by saying that they do not impede peace between Israelis and Palestinians. NPR's Joanna Kakissis has the story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Palestinian Jabar Mousa was 15 when he first met the Jewish settlers who would move in next to his village of Dura al-Qar'. It was 1977.

JABAR MOUSA: (Through interpreter) We stop and ask these young men - who are you? And they said, we are students of the yeshiva. We study in a school in Beit El.

KAKISSIS: Beit El is Hebrew for House of God. The yeshiva students believed they were on the site where the biblical Jacob dreamt of angels going up a ladder to heaven.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).


KAKISSIS: Today, just down the hill from that site, Israeli Chaim Silberstein greets us at his office in Beit El's town hall.

CHAIM SILBERSTEIN: I'm an idealist. I moved to Israel from South Africa 37 years ago. I always wanted to be an active part of the Zionist dream.

KAKISSIS: When he moved here, 150 families lived in Beit El. Now there are more than 1,200 - nearly 7,000 people. He says they're here because God promised Jacob the land of Israel.

SILBERSTEIN: So this is considered a holy area, a holy site. And so therefore, the return to Beit El is considered a return to 4,000 years of Jewish history.

KAKISSIS: Beit El is a slice of Jewish Orthodox suburbia. It has clinics, a steak house, 20 kindergartens and a roundabout with sculptures of pomegranates, figs and grapes. Since Donald Trump was inaugurated, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has approved more than 3,000 new settler homes, at least 20 here.

SILBERSTEIN: The greatest smell for people that want to build is the smell of mud and dust and earth. And I believe within the next few months, possibly, we could begin to see some bulldozers working in Beit El.

KAKISSIS: The American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva has raised millions of dollars for the religious seminary here. A fundraiser for the group is David Friedman, president Trump's pick for ambassador to Israel. Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Trump himself have also donated.

The yeshivas prestige also brings business to Avraham Babad. His family makes to tefillin - small containers with parchment scrolls of handwritten Torah verses. Jewish men tie them to their heads during morning prayers. Babad says David Friedman bought one here.

AVRAHAM BABAD: (Through interpreter) Whoever can help us live what's in the scriptures and fulfill the promise of this land - that's very good.

KAKISSIS: But what's been good for Beit El has not been good for everyone. Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967. The U.N. considers settlements illegal, and Beit El sits right in the middle of the West Bank - one reason why Palestinians see settlements here as a threat to their independent state. Beit El includes land that used to be farmed by Palestinians.


KAKISSIS: I meet 66-year-old olive farmer Abdel Jabbar Abdel Azziz at the central well of the nearby Palestinian village. He points to the roofs of Beit El homes and a fence cutting off land Israelis label a closed military zone.

ABDEL JABBAR ABDEL: (Through interpreter) See that land - that part under the rocks there, on top of the hill? That's my land which I cannot access.

KAKISSIS: He climbed the hill 17 years ago just to see what it felt like to stand there, even though he was afraid he'd get shot.

ABDEL: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I only stayed a few minutes, he says, and then I ran down the hill like a thief. On my own land, I felt like a thief. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.