MAhmoud Yaqoub, a 49-year-old Palestinian farmer, is surrounded on both sides by an Israeli settlement. Standing on his roof, he points to the hill with olive trees that he says are his. But he cannot reach them because a metal fence has been erected around Efrat, confiscating part of his family’s land.
Yaqoub’s sheep are confined to a metal hut next to his house. He says the IDF has forbidden him to keep them on his land because they are considered too close to the settlement.
Until this week, the United States – in accordance with an overwhelming global consensus – considered settlements like Efrat to be illegal under international law. On Monday, the Trump administration announced it believed it was no longer the case.
“There is nothing left of our land. With this decision, the settlement will expand, ”Yaqoub said, adding that he feared his house would be taken afterwards, as were the homes of other Palestinians. “I don’t understand this blind support.
Across the metal fence, Efrat looks like a California suburb. Bike paths wind through the neighborhoods; the roundabouts are filled with colorful flowers; the houses are mostly uniform, with red tiles on the roofs; and children run in the playgrounds.
Over 12,000 people live here. There are signs of occupation but you don’t see them right away – a watchtower in the distance, guns in the backs of pants.
International law prohibits states from moving their civilians to occupied land at the expense of local populations. But as far as the residents of Efrat and much of the Israeli public are concerned, this is a legitimate Israeli town, not an illegal outpost built on Palestinian land.
Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, sees the US announcement as part of a decades-long movement to support the settlers’ argument that they should hold land indefinitely. “Mentalities are changing more and more,” he says. “And the current administration certainly specifies that. “
He believes Donald Trump has something to gain from his support for the settler movement: rallying pro-Israel voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Speaking at his offices in Efrat, the mayor came straight out of a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, who celebrated the news with settler leaders on Tuesday. “I think he understands that something has wrapped like a really big gift on his table,” Revivi said of the Israeli prime minister.
As president, Trump has repeatedly taken measures hailed by Israeli nationalists and extremist settlers, to the detriment of Palestinians who want to build a future state in the occupied territories. He recognized the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, slashed humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees and closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington.
Netanyahu has sought to take credit for these decisions, playing on his relationship with Trump to appeal to right-wing voters. In September, days before the national elections, Netanyahu said he intended to annex the Jewish settlements and declare them part of Israel.
The settlers have been skeptical, as it would lead to diplomatic fallout that Netanyahu may not want to provoke, but they see the latest US policy shift as helping to push their prime minister in that direction.
“He understands that what happened yesterday matters,” said Revvi, who is also a member of the Yesha Council, the main umbrella organization for Israeli settlers. “Now is the time to act. “
The flaw in this plan is the political paralysis that engulfed Israel after two elections this year. Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival as his rival Benny Gantz tries to form a coalition government. The deadline for doing so is Wednesday night and it could end Netanyahu’s 13-year term or lead to another election.
Gantz presents himself as a centrist but also bends to extremists and has also pledged to take permanent control of at least a large part of the West Bank. “It’s hard to say what the difference is between Gantz and Netanyahu,” Revvi says.
In practice, the government is already treating the settlements in many ways as an extension of its territory. Unlike the Palestinians, the Israelis who live there have full citizenship rights and can travel freely between the two territories.
Many residents of Efrat travel to Jerusalem daily, and it is fully connected by public transport to Israel. About 30% of the people living there are foreign-born Jews, and Revivi says a person could likely get by without Hebrew. Large Israeli hamburger and deli chains have opened branches and there’s even a travel store selling flights to European getaways.
A 16-year-old resident, eating a panini at a salad bar in Efrat, says he enjoys the lifestyle, complete with a gym and basketball court. Born in New York, he moved to Efrat when he was young. He says he “doesn’t think much about politics” and hasn’t heard of the US announcement.
Outside the gates of Efrat, 2.5 million Palestinians live under military rule and are less nonchalant. “Why is [the US] want to please the Israeli government at our expense, ”asks Jamal Saleh, 54, who works in a restaurant and lives near the Psagot settlement.
“America put itself on the same footing as the settlers,” he said. “This is the United States of the colonies.”
Additional reports by Sufian Taha