Havat Gilad, West Bank - The bulletproof tour bus, filled with retirees, groaned up the narrow dirt road to meet some of Israel's most notorious Jewish settlers, renegade young firebrands known as the “hilltop youth.”
“The stereotype is of monsters, high school dropouts, Arab killers, thieves of Arab land and uprooters of Arab olive trees,” the host, Rabbi Meir Goldmintz, told his visitors. “The truth is they are the greatest kids, they love this land and want to make their lives here.”
As vacation season approaches, Israeli settlers are opening a bold new front in their battle for legitimacy: tourism.
The zealous hospitality comes as Europe demands special labels identifying products from settlements they consider illegal footholds of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The United States disparages the growth of the settlements and blames them in part for the failure of the “two-state solution,” which envisions Israel living side by side with a Palestinian state.
They are offering a sampling of “the good life,” with fine cabernets and artisanal cheese on the hilltops of the rugged, rural Bible land populated by the gun-toting children of Abraham (armed, they say, to protect themselves from Palestinian attackers).
They are welcoming biblical tourists - evangelical Christians and Jews who want to vacation at ancient sites that appear in the Old Testament and Torah - and “geopolitical tourists,” travelers who want to see the reality behind the headlines.
There are about 400 000 settlers living in the West Bank, in what Israelis call Judea and Samaria, the biblical names. About 15 percent hail from the United States.
Some settlers live in placid suburban-style gated developments filled with residents fleeing Israel's high cost of living for more affordable West Bank villas. Other settlements are built exclusively for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some settlers are ideological, claiming a right to live on the land they say God promised them.
The international community considers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank illegal, though Israel disputes this. The United States labels them “illegitimate” and “obstacles to peace.”
In this campaign, wine tastings are a new weapon against a two-state solution. Holiday chalets are new facts on the ground.
“The 1970s and '80s were the settlement era, when we had to build as much as we could, otherwise they would give it back to the Arabs. We had to block the Palestinians,” said Karni Eldad, the co-author of Yesha Is Fun, a guidebook about vacationing in the West Bank, known to settlers as “Yesha.”
“Now we're in the tourist era,” Eldad said, when raising the profile of the settlements is part of the struggle to “keep this land, securing our forefather's land, that we conquered with our blood.”
So on offer: visits to ancient springs (that Palestinians say they relied on) and the Shiloh archaeology park (where settlers say the Ark of the Covenant was kept).
“Drinking wine is a good thing. People begin to be friends,” said Vered Ben Saadon, pouring a fruit merlot in her family's Tura Winery at the Rechelim settlement.
There are also zip lines, New Age massages, craft-beer breweries, spiritual retreats and petting zoos - often at sites protected by Israeli soldiers.
“We were a bit nervous, but we thought it was more important to be brave,” said Judy Russell, 72, an Australian, at Shiloh last week.
“They block every chance to have a sovereign Palestinian state while promoting the growth of Israeli settlements,” said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestine Liberation Organisation adviser.
Abu Eid complained that historic Jericho, Burqin and Nablus in the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank get relatively few tourists. Once-popular Bethlehem has the West Bank's highest unemployment, he said, “while illegal Israeli settlements are developing a whole new industry under the full support of the Israeli government.”
In addition to vineyards and mountain biking, some guides offer more provocative trips. One series of tours, titled “Hilltop Youth: Who Are You?,” invited visitors to “get to know the outposts” beyond such negative associations as “violence, messianic ideology, rebellion.”
On a recent trip, seniors crowded into the yeshiva at Havat Gilad, which has been dismantled several times by Israeli authorities who have accused its settlers of attacking Israeli police and shooting at Palestinians and destroying their olive trees. In January 2015, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian they said was about to throw a firebomb on a road leading to the settlement.
“Despite the hillbilly appearance, the Gilad farmers love guests,” the “Yesha” guidebook said. But the long-haired “hilltop youth” declined to engage. When a tourist approached with a camera, one young man put his head down on the table.
Because how illegal can they be if they get Israeli electricity, water, roads and army protection?
“We have to be normal,” said Noam Cohen, who runs a music club at Neve Erez, a back-to-the-land hilltop settlement in the Judean wilderness east of Jerusalem that was once dismantled by Israeli authorities who said it was built on land privately owned by Palestinians.
“No one can say it's not yours - open the Bible,” Cohen said on a peaceful afternoon, the sound of the wind punctuated by target practice from a nearby army base.
“When people come here, they experience a different side of us: nature, music, olives, lemons,” he said.
The shift to openness and tourism is credited to Dani Dayan, the former chairperson of the settler Yesha Council. Brazil recently rejected Dayan as Israel's ambassador. He is now Israeli consul general in New York.
“We understood that if we want people to agree with us, we have to open the doors,” said Yesha spokeswoman Miri Maoz-Ovadia.
Maoz-Ovadia said there has been huge growth in settlement tourism in the past five years. The 1.5 million annual visitors to the West Bank now encounter 15 new multilingual settlement visitors centres, 20 boutique wineries and some 200 bed-and-breakfasts - in spite of Palestinian pressure on Web hosts such as Airbnb to stop the offerings.
“We need to broaden our audience internationally,” said Gedaliah Blum, who runs a marketing website from the Eli settlement.
“China has no anti-Semitism, there are no hang-ups,” he said. “They're interested in wines.”
After a surge in support from settlers aided Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2015 victory, some see no reason to be discreet.
“To be a settler means to vote against the two-state solution. You don't want to be turned out of your home,” Eldad, the guidebook author, said as she baked granola at the Tekoa settlement south of Bethlehem, the clang of construction in the air.
“The situation is not hilltop youth burning a house in Duma,” Eldad said, referring to the young Jewish extremists who are the alleged perpetrators of a firebombing in the West Bank village of Duma that killed a Palestinian mother and father and their 18-month-old baby, and severely burned their 5-year-old boy.
“At that same hilltop,” where the arsonists came from, “there is a herd of goats that has unbelievable cheese,” she said.