KIRYAT ARBA, West Bank — Rena and Amichai Ariel sat quietly on the unmade bed where their 13-year-old daughter was killed.
On the morning of June 30, Hallel was sleeping when a Palestinian youth jumped the nearby perimeter fence of this Jewish settlement in the West Bank, entered her room and fatally stabbed her.
Hallel is the youngest Israeli to die in the current wave of violence that has seen a steady stream of stabbings, shootings and vehicular attacks by Palestinians against Israelis and tough Israeli countermeasures since Oct. 1.
The attack, and another one nearby the next day in which an Israeli father of 10 was killed by a Palestinian gunman, shocked Israelis. Immediately, the military deployed several hundred soldiers to the area. Wide-ranging closures were imposed on Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, and smaller villages in the district. Movement was restricted for 700,000 people, even though it was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The government also declared that it was working on a “special plan” for Kiryat Arba, including building 42 more housing units in the settlement, which has a population of about 7,000 people that does not seem to be growing.
In the days that followed Hallel’s slaying, high-profile leaders visited the family, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He said he was shocked “to see the blood stains next to her bed and the books and clothes of a small child.”
“It reminds us again of who we are facing,” Netanyahu said. “They want to uproot what has been planted, but we will deepen the roots. They will not make us leave here.”
But bolstering the settlements, and particularly expanding them, is what Israel’s critics — including the U.S. administration — say is driving Israelis and Palestinians further away from reaching a peace deal based on “two states for two peoples.”
A day after Hallel’s killing, the Middle East Quartet mediation group released a report saying that among other things, Israel’s “continuing policy of settlement construction and expansion was steadily eroding the viability of the two-state solution.”
Surrounded by hostile Palestinian towns and villages, Kiryat Arba is viewed as an illegal settlement by much of the world because it sits on land Palestinians want to be part of a future state.
“Every new construction in any settlement will make reaching a peace deal much, much harder,” Hagit Ofran, director of Settlement Watch for the left-wing Israeli human rights organization Peace Now, told The Washington Post in an interview.
“We are already in a situation that when we get to a peace agreement for two states, Israel will have to pay a high price removing thousands of Israelis from their homes in settlements,” she said.
And, Ofran said, figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that the town’s population has steadily been shrinking over the past five years.
While other Israeli settlements offer a certain charm, with whitewashed villas and a sense of commonness, Kiryat Arba is a cluster of older apartment buildings with a mix of struggling immigrants and ideologically driven ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Baruch Nachshon, a renowned Israeli artist who has lived here since Israel won the land from Jordan after the 1967 Six-Day War said that in the beginning, people came because they wanted to be near the place “God had promised to Abraham.”
Kiryat Arba was also home to the American-born Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. Jews refer to the area as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and believe that Abraham is buried there. It is often a flashpoint between Israelis and Palestinians. Goldstein was beaten to death at the scene of the mass shooting. His grave is located at the edge of the settlement and remains a pilgrimage site for extremists.
After the ideological people moved to Kiryat Arba in the 1970s, Nachshon said others arrived, people looking for cheaper housing.
“Russian immigrants came here, then the Bnei Menashe [Indian immigrants with Jewish heritage] and Ethiopians, but many left because there is no work here,” he said. Some of the ideologically driven also left to start new settlements.
Still, Nachshon said, he takes pride in being part of the Jewish renewal in the area.
“We brought the Jewish community back here,” he said. “What is happening now with the Arabs is a war over inheritance. It did not start with Zionism or the settlements. It started with Ishmael and Isaac. This land was promised to Abraham.”
“I don’t believe that building new apartments in Kiryat Arba has anything to do with blocking or achieving peace here,” said Malachi Levinger, the settlement’s mayor.
Levinger said he knows of many young families looking to move to his town and that the building of 42 new units was part of a tender announced by the government years ago.
“The 42 units that the government is now talking about were already planned four years ago, but the contractor pulled out for personal reasons,” said Amichai Ariel, Hallel’s father. “Lots of young couples are leaving here because there is no building, there is nowhere for them to live.”
Amichai and Rena said that despite the talk of building here, political considerations and outside pressure means nothing changes.
“The reason we live in the last house is because, for many years, there has been no building here. There was supposed to be a whole new neighborhood over there,” said Rena, a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen, pointing to the open land between her house and the perimeter fence.
She said that since her daughter’s killing, the family has planned to install new doors and metal bars on the windows.
“We don’t want to live like that. We want to live in peace,” Rena said. “But they don’t want peace. All they want to do is kill us.”
“Islam is a terror nation. What makes a boy wake up at 8:30 a.m. on the summer vacation and think about going out to kill a young girl? He was a 17-year-old kid, he did not feel occupied, what did he know?” she said.