A hilltop. The earth light and still, almost barren: a brownish yellow, dotted with rocks and lonely olive trees, and, here and there, soft patches of green brought on by the rain. Cutting through the center of the hilltop ran a narrow and bumpy single-lane road. A trailer—a mobile home—attached to the back of a large truck slowly climbed and descended its winding path. A yellow Palestinian cab bearing a green license plate crawled along impatiently behind. And after the cab chugged an old and dusty white Renault Express, its rear window bearing stickers declaring MY GOLANI DOESN’T EXPEL JEWS; HEBRON—NOW AND FOREVER; and BRING THE OSLO CRIMINALS TO JUSTICE. Behind the wheel of the Renault sat Othniel Assis—bearded, wearing a large skullcap, just as dusty as his vehicle. Weeping miserably in a car seat in the back sat his youngest, three-year-old Shuv-el. He had dropped his packet of Bamba as they rounded one of the sharp bends, and neither he nor his father could pick it up off the floor of the car. Yellow crumbs from the peanut butter–flavored snack had stuck to one of the child’s sidelocks. The fourth vehicle in the impromptu convoy that day on the rough road through the Judean hills was a military jeep, a David, carrying the section commander, Captain Omer Levkovich, along with his crew.
The road rose sharply. The truck shifted down a gear; its engine screamed and carried the vehicle up the incline, the same slow pace of the herd of goats that ambled indifferently along the side of the road. The cabdriver mumbled something in Arabic, blew his horn, and pulled off a dangerous passing maneuver. Seconds later, one of the cab’s tires blew—a dull thud, the sound of rubber being dragged across the tarmac, the car bouncing along the road, the driver’s curses. The cab came to a halt, blocking the road. Out stepped Jeff McKinley, the Washington Post’s Jerusalem correspondent, on his way to interview a high-ranking Israeli government minister who lived in a settlement some six kilometers from where they had stopped. McKinley looked at his watch and wiped a bead of sweat from his wide brow. The evening before, his father had told him about the snow that was falling in Virginia; here he was in February, already perspiring. He had ten minutes to get to the meeting at the minister’s home. He couldn’t wait for the flat to be fixed. McKinley handed the cabdriver a fifty-shekel note and walked off in the direction of the hitchhiking station he spotted a few dozen meters away.
But, as if the perspiring, the time crunch, and his heavy breathing—a sign of his lack of fitness and an urgent need to diet—weren’t enough, someone had beaten him to the station and was first in line for a ride. Dressed in a finely tailored suit, the man stood there with his arms folded across his chest, a large suitcase at his feet, a broad white smile on his face, uttering words in Hebrew that McKinley didn’t understand.
Before McKinley could reach the ride station, the dusty Renault signaled and pulled over.
“Shalom, fellow Jews!” Othniel Assis called out.
“Where are you headed?” the man with the suitcase asked the driver.
“Ma’aleh Hermesh C.,” Othniel Assis replied, glancing at the blue suit, and then into the man’s eyes, which appeared weary.
“For real? You’re a star, bro,” the man said, picking up his heavy suitcase from the faded tarmac.
“Do me a favor, buddy,” the driver said. “Help the kid—his Bamba fell onto the floor.”
Othniel then turned to the American. “What about you, dude?” he asked in Hebrew.
“Can you get me anywhere near Yeshua, where Minister Kaufman lives?” McKinley responded in English.
“What?” said Othniel.
“Settlement?” McKinley said in an effort to simplify matters, after repeating his first question to no avail.
“Settlement, settlement—yes!” Othniel smiled. “Please, please.”
McKinley’s limited knowledge of the area didn’t include the fact that its hilltops were home not only to Ma’aleh Hermesh and its two outgrowths, B. and C., but also to Givat Esther and its offshoots, to Sdeh Gavriel, and to Yeshua, where the minister resided. He squeezed into the backseat alongside the child.
The convoy—a trailer home on a truck, a company commander and his crew in a jeep, and a dusty pickup, carrying a settler and his child and two hitchhikers, an American and an Israeli—turned onto a second road. This road was even narrower, and steeper, too, and so, once again, the two smaller vehicles were doomed to crawl along at the snail’s pace dictated by the larger truck. Captain Omer’s gray-green eyes remained firmly planted on the rear of the trailer, displaying a touch of apprehension at the thought of the vehicle’s load detaching and crashing down on the jeep behind it. He glanced at his watch and then turned to gaze into the side mirror.
“Tell me something, don’t I know you from somewhere?” Othniel asked his Hebrew-speaking passenger.
The man stared for some time at the driver’s large head and at the wide skullcap that covered it.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “My brother lives here with you, but we don’t look alike at all.”
Othniel cast a quick look over his shoulder at the man with the black hair and then turned to focus on the road again.
His passenger offered some assistance. “Gabi Kupper. Do you know him?”
The driver frowned. “We don’t have anyone by that name,” he said. “We have a Gavriel. Gavriel Nehushtan. A great guy. A real prince. He works with me on the farm.”
“Nehushtan?” Roni Kupper replied, his turn to frown.
The American journalist glanced impatiently at his watch.
The slow climb up the hill ended at the entrance into Ma’aleh Hermesh A. The three vehicles drove through the gate, turned right at the traffic circle, and made their way through the well-established settlement with its stone homes, paved streets, and small commercial area comprising a winery, a horse ranch, and a carpentry workshop. They then headed across a desolate hilltop before reaching the trailers of the sister settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh B., beyond which the tarmac ended and a dirt road plunged steeply down into the wadi, traversed the dry riverbed, and began climbing up the other side.
“All gone, Daddy!” Shuv-el announced, on finishing his Bamba.
A sickly sweet stench filled the car.
“Did you go, sweetie?” the father asked his son.
“Holy crap!” hissed Roni Kupper. “What is this place?”
Jeff McKinley did his utmost to refrain from retching.
A yellow dust rose from the wheels of the vehicles into the crisp sky above and after snaking their way along for a while, they came to a water tower bearing a crudely drawn Star of David, followed immediately by an IDF guard tower, and finally the eleven trailers that made up the outpost, spread out along a circular road. Manning the guard post stood Yoni, the soldier, a rifle at an angle across his chest, his one hand on the butt, welcoming the arrivals in his Ray-Bans with a boyish smile on his face.
An untamed landscape stretched out before them—the Judean Desert in all its splendor and beauty, with its arid hilltops and the Dead Sea tucked away at their feet, and beyond it, rising up on the horizon, the mountains of Moab and Edom. Occasional villages and settlements dotted the expanse of land, while farther in the distance stood the truncated summit of the Herodium and the homes of a large Palestinian town, some of which appeared wrapped in a giant gray concrete wall, like a gift that couldn’t be opened.
A large improvised sign stood just beyond the entrance to the outpost, the handwriting almost like a child’s, in Hebrew and English, reading: “Welcome to Ma’aleh Hermesh C.”
On a rocky, beautiful hilltop stands Ma’aleh Hermesh C, a fledgling community flying under the radar. According to the government it doesn’t exist; according to the military it must be defended. On this contested land, Othniel Assis—under the wary gaze of the neighboring Palestinian village—plants asparagus, arugula, and cherry tomatoes, and he installs goats—and his ever-expanding family. As Othniel cheerfully manipulates government agencies, more settlers arrive, and, amid a hodge-podge of shipping containers and mobile homes, the outpost takes root.
One of the settlement’s steadfast residents is Gabi Kupper, a one-time free spirit and kibbutz-dweller, who undergoes a religious awakening. The delicate routines of Gabi’s new life are thrown into turmoil with the sudden arrival of Roni, his prodigal brother, who, years after venturing to America in search of fortune, arrives at Gabi’s door, penniless. To the settlement’s dismay, Roni soon hatches a plan to sell the “artisanal” olive oil from the Palestinian village to Tel Aviv yuppies. When a curious Washington Post correspondent stumbles into their midst, Ma’aleh Hermesh C becomes the focus of an international diplomatic scandal and faces its greatest test yet.
By turns serious and satirical, The Hilltop brilliantly skewers the complex, often absurd reality of life in Israel, the West Bank settlers, and the nation's relationship to the United States, and makes a startling parallel between today’s settlements and the kibbutz movement of Gabi and Roni’s youth. Rich with humor and insight, Assaf Gavron’s novel is the first fiction to grapple with one of the most charged geo-political issues of our time, and he has written a masterpiece.