Patrick Moser
Agence France Presse (AFP)
June 29, 2009 - 12:00am

This year's cherry festival was a roaring success, drawing thousands of people who enjoyed grilled kosher sausages and right-wing ideology in the emblematic Gush Etzion settlement bloc.

A band belted out its stuff as clowns entertained the wee ones and families gorged themselves on the plump cherries of the Rosh Tzurim kibbutz, one of the communities in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem.

Food stalls and other small businesses did brisk trade, but the fest was about more than just fun and money.

Local tourism authorities hope such events will help boost support for Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are seen as a major hurdle in peace efforts with the Palestinians and have come under increasing US pressure.

"The goal is to make people discover Eretz Israel," says organiser Yoram Bitane, using the Hebrew words for Land of Israel, favoured by right-wingers to describe not only present-day Israel but also the Palestinian territories to which they claim a divine right.

"We want to make Israelis who have a negative idea of settlements come here and see for themselves," says Bitane, whose PR company promotes several Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"We want people to know what they're talking about when making decisions on whether to give away a part of the territory or not."

Bitane has no doubt what that decision should be.

"I am Israeli, Jewish and a believer. I live here, this is my house, my land. No discussion."

He is also convinced tourism is a perfect tool to draw support and believes that if Israel had done more to attract visitors to Gaza at the time, it would not have needed to pull out its troops and settlers from the Palestinian territory in 2005.

After all, even former US president Jimmy Carter admitted he could not imagine Gush Etzion would ever be handed over to Palestinians.

Carter stunned the settler community which had long hated him for his opposition to settlements and whom they consider as pro-Palestinian, when he made the comment during a visit earlier this month to the bloc of settlements just south of Jerusalem.

"One can only wonder what President (Barack) Obama would feel if he actually saw for himself, rather than rely on hearsay," says Allan Novetsky as he watches his grandchildren, perched high up trees, picking cherries.

Novetsky, who moved to Jerusalem from Chicago three years ago, says he regularly takes family trips to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"We treat the country as a whole. We want to show presence throughout the country."

He points out he never feels the need to carry a weapon on such trips.

"It's as safe as any street in New York, probably safer," he says. A few metres (yards) away, two soldiers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, amble through the orchard, stopping every now and then to eat some cherries.

Late last year, the Yesha Council, the main settlers' organisation, launched a major drive to attract tourism under the motto: "Judea and Samaria, the story of every Jew."

The campaign aims at promoting not only tourism in the West Bank -- which most Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria -- but also the concept that Jews have had a God-given right to the land since Biblical times.

More than 280,000 Israelis live in some 120 settlements that criss-cross the West Bank and that are generally off-limits to Palestinians.

The international community considers the settlements illegal. Israel rejects this, and its right-wing government has dismissed calls for a freeze of all construction activity.

Authorities did demolish a few shacks in tiny outposts that were set up without authorisation, but right-wing activists immediately started rebuilding and pledged to erect more wildcat settlements.

The outposts have drawn much controversy but also hundreds of tourists, most of them intent on showing solidarity.

"The aim is to bring as many Jews as possible to the region, so they can see up close the type of danger that people face," says Tomer Tzanani, who runs outpost tours in an armoured bus twice a month.

Asked what Palestinians thought of the tours, Tzanani admitted: "I have no idea. We never come into contact with them."

Many settlers are convinced the Palestinians are the intruders in the West Bank, not the Jews.

The land of the Jews, says Bitane, "is not just this small bit they want to give us, but the whole of Greater Israel."

That he says includes the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War, when it also captured Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsula

"We need the Golan. People need it to spend their vacations," says Bitane as loudspeakers blare out James Brown's signature tune "I feel good".


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