In the afternoon we took a tour of the yishuv. It wasn't a long tour as the settlement consists of 120 families mostly in single family homes, as well as a few caravans. In addition, Otniel is the host of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva (which you'd assume would be in Otniel), which is apparently a very popular yeshiva now which boasts enrollment of 350+ students.
A few things struck me about Otniel:
- Otniel doesn't have a fence around it for security, by the choice of the residents. The party line was, "as soon as you build a fence, the Arabs build houses right up to it." But I think that there's an ideological as well as emotional aspect as well. People who live in Otniel are strongly ideologically driven. They're not coming just for the cheap housing (and it is cheap - which in Israel is quite rare), but because they believe in the mission of settling the Land. Fencing yourself in sends the message that the Jews must isolate themselves - and that the surrounding area is not for them, but for someone else. They're not ready to make that statement.
- Security awareness was constant; I constantly saw soldiers on patrol, regular citizens carrying M-16s; something you don't see even in many other settlements.
- Since we were visiting for the seventh day of Pesach, I was in shul in Otniel for yizkor, which included a special kel malei for the victims of terror from Otniel. It was a pretty long list, longer than I expected, probably more than ten names. I asked my cousin about it, and he told me that each of the people was connected to Otniel, either having lived in the yishuv or studied in the yeshiva. Listening to the almost nonchalant tone of the chazan during yizkor saddened me. It seemed like losing friends in Otniel is just part of life.
- I asked my cousin whether he worried about being forced out of his home in the future. He told me quite simply (and honestly), "Look, we've been here for fourteen years now. I don't really worry about what will be in the future. We just want to live our lives. Hopefully, fifty years from now we'll still be here."
Seeing the stark difference made me realize that speaking of "territories" and "withdrawal" rather nonchalantly in Washington becomes far more complicated when you look at facts on the ground: each settlement is different, every area unique. Some areas have less Jewish presence, but others have much, much more.
Most importantly, while the media loves to paint these "hardcore" settlers as fanatics, they're anything but. Passionate? Definitely. Willing to live in a challenging place because of their beliefs? Without a doubt. But fanatic? Hardly. We all have a lot to learn from their deep faith, happiness, and willingness not only to have a belief, but to back it up with action.