TEL AVIV, Israel — Naomi and David Kaplan live with their five children in Bat Ayin, a pinpoint-sized, fenced-off settlement in the West Bank of Israel. Their village has around 150 families, most of whom are religious Jews.
Like their neighbors, David, a 49-year-old radio broadcaster, and Naomi, a 46-year-old former chemistry professor turned stay-at-home mom, practice all the Jewish holidays and eat only kosher food. They also dress modestly. But underneath the long skirts favored by Naomi and the tzitzit -- knotted ritual fringes -- worn by David, both also wear a concealed handgun.
The couple, American immigrants from Texas, are among a growing number of Israeli settlers who are arming themselves -- a response, they say, to a swell of Palestinian violence that the Israeli government either cannot or will not protect them from. David carries a Steyr pistol; Naomi carries a Glock 19.
"You have to be aware at every moment. If you see an Arab walk up to you, you have to get into position to do something," says Naomi. "We live with the fact that people are out to kill us. Despite that, we want to build a normal life for ourselves and our children. We certainly want our children not to be scared and not to feel in danger."
Israelis may have an armed-to-their-teeth image, but in reality this is a nation with incredibly strict gun laws. Once an Israeli citizen completes mandatory army service at the age of 22 or 23, there are really only two ways to obtain a weapon -- either work in a security-related job or be a West Bank settler.
"You can't just walk into a gun store and buy a gun like you do in many states in the U.S.," says Micky Rosenfeld, spokesperson for the Israel Police. "But in Judea and Samaria [the official Israeli designation for the West Bank], because of the dangers there … it's possible to get a hold of a handgun or a pistol. It's something that sometimes is necessary."
The Israeli government -- faced with mounting international pressure and assisted by close cooperation with Palestinian Authority security forces -- has been quietly scaling back its presence in the areas it conquered from Jordan in 1967. Dozens of Israeli military checkpoints have been shuttered, and troop levels in the area have been cut to their lowest number in 10 years. At the same time, settlement construction is at a seven-year high. There are now more Jews than ever in the West Bank, and as the soldiers' numbers dwindle, these Israelis are increasingly on edge.
The revived peace process, paradoxically, may make settlers like the Kaplans more focused on their self-defense. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's announcement on Monday, July 29 -- while holding the hands of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice* Minister Tzipi Livni -- that talks would resume was hailed in Washington, many Israelis had a different reaction. They focused on the 104 Palestinian prisoners, several of them with blood on their hands, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release in order to coax the Palestinians to the table. Many voices in the Israeli media expressed dismay that the hawkish prime minister would strike such a Faustian bargain.
"Chalk up yet another triumph for the terrorists," wrote Michael Freund in the Jerusalem Post. "Ignoring virtually wall-to-wall public opposition, as well as warnings from the security establishment, the government voted by a wide margin to yield to Palestinian demands and let murderers go free. What a disgrace."
Both Naomi and David say that they never would have dreamed of owning handguns when they lived in Texas. David says that the gun has not made him feel safer, but the nature of life in the Jewish state motivated him to learn how to use it.
"I was taught that guns are very dangerous, that guns kill people," he says. "I was afraid of guns. And what changed my attitude here was the feeling that I have a responsibility to protect my brothers and sisters. That I'm not an individual. In America I thought of myself as an individual, and here I think of myself as part of a whole."
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Bat Ayin is part of the Gush Etzion bloc, a collection of about two dozen Israeli settlements squatting in the Judean Mountains, a 25-minute drive from Jerusalem. The Kaplans and I are talking in their shady backyard, which sits at the edge of a ravine. The land here -- all stubble, rock, and pine -- is striking in its sparseness.
On the other side of their backyard's steep slope sits a Palestinian village, its clustered homes and mosque's minaret practically within arm's reach. The Kaplan's 12-year-old daughter joins us, listening quietly while leaning on her mother's lap.
David looks uneasily at his neighbors across the valley and admits that on many mornings, while drinking coffee on his patio, he has considered how easy it would be for a sniper in one of those buildings to take a shot at him. Yet both he and Naomi insist that while life in the West Bank has its dangers, they face no greater risk than their fellow Israelis in Tel Aviv or Haifa.
"There are two points to life here that I don't think that we've reconciled," says David, referring to all of Israel. "First of all, we want to live a normal life, and second, this is not normal. It's anything but normal. It's not normal, in an American, Western sense, to live among a people that wants to kill you."
The couple's protestations aside, being a motorist or pedestrian in the West Bank is significantly more perilous than across the Green Line, which marked Israel's borders at its establishment in 1948. Signs of Palestinian fury are everywhere: Incidences of rock-throwing and Molotov cocktail-hurling are now on the rise, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) projects 2013 will be the most violent year since the close of the Second Intifada in 2005.