On Remote Hilltops, Israelis Broaden Settlements
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 8, 2002; Page A01
MIGRON, West Bank -- Seven months ago, the only signs of civilization atop this desert hillock 10 miles north of Jerusalem were a cellular telephone antenna and a small maintenance shed.
Today, a smooth asphalt ribbon winds up the rocky hillside to one of the West Bank's newest Jewish settlements: 33 house trailers set amid freshly planted slabs of lawn turf, a modest synagogue, a boisterous nursery school and a children's playground.
In the past two years -- since the start of the Palestinian uprising and the subsequent election of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- the number of new settlement outposts has exploded in the West Bank, far outstripping the pace of growth before 2001, according to records kept by several monitoring organizations.
At least 66 new Jewish outposts, or fledgling settlements, have sprouted across the ridgelines and hilltops in those two years, compared with the 44 outposts started over the previous five years combined, according to Peace Now, an advocacy group that opposes Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. More than two-thirds of the new outposts were established in the past 11 months, the most intense period of the conflict.
Settlement opponents say the new outposts -- and indeed all settlements -- violate several U.N. resolutions and international laws, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from moving its civilians into territories it occupies. Israel has argued that it is not occupying the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, and has refused to recognize the validity of the international restrictions on these lands.
Israeli government policy now prohibits the creation of new settlements. But settlement opponents say the Sharon government has circumvented that policy by allowing large expansions of existing settlements, often using outposts to create new neighborhoods that are sometimes miles from the original settlement. Israeli officials admit that a large percentage of the outposts violate government policy.
"This is an outrageous phenomenon," said Dror Etkes, who heads Peace Now's settlement watch program and has chronicled the mushrooming outposts. "What the government cannot officially do, it can get the settlers to do for them. This is the wild east, the twilight zone, and the law is problematic."
"The question is not whether they are legal or illegal," said Benny Katzover, a leader of the settlement movement in the West Bank, whose count of new outposts in the last year is 40 to 50. "The issue is whether one leaves these hills to the Arabs, or whether Jews will live on them. That is the issue. The question of legality is secondary."
In a war that turns on ancient claims to the land, few issues have been more central to the violence and animosity between Jews and Arabs than the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It has also been divisive within Israel. Financing of settlement expansion was the reason given by the Labor Party last month for pulling out of a coalition government with Sharon.
After capturing the West Bank in the 1967 war, Israel claimed large tracts of land for settlements and state land preserves, and embarked on a settlement campaign that has moved ahead regardless of which political party has been in power. Since the Oslo peace accords of 1993, every government, including that of the Labor Party's Ehud Barak, has funded aggressive settlement expansion that has allowed the population of Jews in the West Bank to grow from about 100,000 to nearly 200,000, according to data compiled by groups that oppose settlement expansion. Each government has used slightly different reasons for the growth, whether to fulfill a biblical vision of a "Land of Israel," enhance Israeli security, or allow for the natural growth of Jewish communities.
Sharon has long been an outspoken supporter of settlement expansion. He proposed in 1977 a plan to annex up to 70 percent of the West Bank, but it was never carried out. Two decades later, as foreign minister, he suggested that settlers "grab hilltops" before Palestinians won them in peace negotiations. Today, as prime minister, he is a staunch defender of settlement and outpost expansion.
Recently, the violence and a faltering Israeli economy have slightly slowed the construction of new homes and apartments in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where settlers live amid an estimated 2 million Palestinians. Some frightened residents have fled the established settlements. But a new generation of youthful settlers is setting down fresh footholds on the stark, stony topography, transforming barren hilltops into thriving communities in a matter of months.
Bands of armed, often violent young settlers, dubbed "the hilltop boys" by more established settlers, are manning many of the most isolated and vulnerable new outposts. The majority are teenagers, twentysomething bachelors or single women. Many were raised in more established settlements and come from religious backgrounds. In recent months, they have been at the forefront of confrontations with neighboring Arabs, journalists, and on occasion, the Israeli army.
Six months ago, 27-year-old Itay Zar moved his wife and two children, along with 10 "hilltop boys," into trailers on a bald hill a few miles southwest of the West Bank city of Nablus. When Israeli army forces arrived last month to dismantle the outpost, called Gilad Farm, hundreds of other young settlers flocked to the site, hurling rocks and curses at the soldiers.
"Whoever says that we are occupiers is a hypocrite," said Zar, whose family and entourage of young men returned to the farm within days of the army encounter. "This will be the first settlement of six settlements we are planning here. Until all the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel according to what has been promised in the Bible, there will be no peace."
Every few weekends, Etkes, the Peace Now coordinator, squeezes into the front passenger space of a four-seat propeller plane armed with a pair of binoculars and a detailed map of the geographic whorls, valleys and ridgelines of the West Bank.
To Etkes, the slightest scar etched across the tan landscape below can be potential evidence of a new outpost. "When you know the logic, they're easy to find," he said. "A container on a hill, roads that lead out of settlements to nowhere -- very often putting in a dirt road is the first stage." On a recent flight, he saw that seven outposts were positioned so that when joined in the future, the northern settlement of Itamar would snake nearly four miles across the hilltops. He noted five sites perched atop vantage points ringing the settlement of Eli on Route 60, the major north-south highway, creating a potentially massive new balloon around the original settlement.
"You can see where there are missing links," said Etkes. "They will try to put outposts along roadsides. The roads are the veins of the entire settlement of the West Bank."
From the smattering of four new outposts that Peace Now recorded in 1996, at least 38 new sites appeared by 2000. The uprising began in September 2000. In all that year, Peace Now detected two new outposts. In 2001, the year Sharon became prime minister, 20 new outposts were recorded. In 2002, Dror has plotted 46 new outposts, a rate of nearly four new sites per month. Of the 110 sites, the organization has been unable to determine the precise year of origin of nine outposts.
In a recent appearance before a committee of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, newly appointed Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz reported 102 settler outposts on the West Bank, 32 of which he said were unauthorized, 35 he described as having "uncertain" status and 35 he said had "received authorization of the political echelon." Katzover, whose own estimates of new outposts closely tracks those of Peace Now, said the growth was a direct result of the uprising, or intifada.
"There is a feeling of duty towards the homeland and the Jewish people that, among the idealists, has been strengthened during the intifada," he said. "There is a growing need to tighten the grip. For three families in caravans to live on a barren hill is not an easy thing."
The ownership of the land used to establish outposts is often murky. Some outposts have been situated alongside observation points claimed by the military for "security purposes," or within the boundaries of private land seized by Israel for building new bypass roads to settlements. Others are set up within the vast tracts of state land claimed by Israel after it seized the West Bank, and some are built on private land purchased from Palestinians, though deeds and property registration on the West Bank has been notoriously rife with fraud.
It is often difficult to monitor the expansion of settlements and outposts because the process involves a tortuous series of government decisions in a dozen government ministries, as well as regional councils and special committees. Also, the outposts are virtually impossible to track on official maps, files or plans of the Israeli government.
However, a pattern of expanding settlements has been documented by several groups, including Peace Now; B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group; and the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a U.S.-based advocacy organization. All three oppose settlement expansion.
Overall, the Defense Ministry has ultimate responsibility, but government officials are reluctant to answer questions about specifics. For example, asked for details about Migron and other outposts, Yarden Vatikai, who was until recently Defense Ministry spokesman, said, "I do not deal with that. For that you have to talk to Civil Administration," an agency of the military with responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Civil Administration spokesman Peter Lerner said, "I can't comment on that issue at all. I think it [Migron] does have some sort of legal status, but you need to check with the minister of defense." Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon, said he could not provide any information.
Although details are concealed, lawmakers and former government officials have estimated that Israel spends roughly $1 billion a year on the 123 formally designated Jewish settlements in the West Bank and 10 in the Gaza Strip. Moshe Raz, a Knesset member from the dovish Meretz party who has attempted to follow the convoluted money trail, said that this year he found $380 million for settlements and outposts tucked into the budgets of a dozen ministries, including transportation, agriculture, religion and defense. Raz said he believes that hundreds of millions of dollars more -- that he has not yet identified -- are being funneled into settlements and outposts.
The pattern of settlements, outposts and highways for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, combined with an estimated 250 to 350 military checkpoints, roadblocks and tank trenches established over the last two years, has transformed Palestinian-held territory into the geographic equivalent of Swiss cheese, Arab holes surrounded by Israeli-controlled swaths of infrastructure and military zones.
"The people who determine the [settlement] zones are the settlers themselves," said Amiram Goldblum, who has spent more than a decade tracking settlement development for Peace Now. "It's a different country, a different land, a land that is run by settlers."
Last March, at a time of intense violence between Palestinians and Israelis, three house trailers were pulled up next to a cellular telephone tower on a wind-whipped patch of dust and rocks, a point with seemingly infinite vistas across the West Bank.
A group of about 10 young, single men and women moved to the hilltop and named their new outpost Migron, claiming it as the site of a long forgotten community mentioned in the Bible. Shira Hueller, her husband and their 13-month-old daughter were the first family to move in. "Because of the events of the past two years, we felt we couldn't wait anymore -- we had to come here," said Hueller, echoing the attitude of many of the new settlers.
"In the beginning, it was very pioneering," said Hueller, 25, who has since had a second child and is representative of most of the residents here: under 30 and the products of families who lived in established settlements, or, like Hueller, in a religious kibbutz. She wears the knitted hat, ankle-skimming skirt and long sleeves favored by many observant Jewish women.
For the first few weeks, the community was little more than a rudimentary campground with no electricity, no running water, plenty of mud and a communal spirit that brought the settlers together for a shared Sabbath dinner every Friday night. Today, 30 families live in Migron. There's a waiting list of young couples eager to join them as soon as more trailers can be towed up the hill.
In seven months, Migron has become more entrenched. Mothers stroll their toddlers a few dozen feet from their front doorsteps to a small nursery school where military camouflage netting shades the playground from the desert sun. Husbands take turns patrolling the streets and barbed-wire-topped perimeter fence at night, M-16s or Uzis slung over their shoulders, pistols on their hips. Wives rotate baking the cookies and setting out coffee in the squat, house-trailer synagogue each evening for the Israeli soldiers who also patrol the community.
Even though the outpost is unauthorized, the regional council that oversees the area and receives much of its financing from the Israeli government has paid for the newly paved road, the electrical lines, the security fence, the synagogue, pre-school and most recently, a medical clinic, according to residents. They said they pay about $70 per family in rent and taxes -- about a tenth of what apartments in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem might cost.
A few feet away from the guard post at the entrance is a wooden sign, dark brown with yellow lettering: "Migron, a communal settlement established on March 3, 2002, in spite of the difficulties, with belief in the eternity of Israel. . . . Welcome."
Avishai Shitrit, 25, moved here three months ago with his wife and newborn son. His sister became enraged when she heard that he planned to move to the new settlement after seeing an advertisement that the Benjamin Regional Council "wanted to build a new place."
"You're crazy!" Shitrit recalled his sister ranting. "You're just making the war worse. You agitate the Arabs and they're already angry."
"We're not trying to make war, or to anger anyone," said the soft-spoken, 25-year-old Shitrit, who like a large number of the men here studies in a religious yeshiva school. "We just want to build our country. I'm a religious man. It's a religious thing to do."
Army Caught in a Bind
For nearly six months this year, Gilad Farm, an outpost manned by Itay Zar, his wife and two toddlers and 10 young bachelors, was guarded by the crew of a 60-ton Israeli Merkava tank. In October, soldiers from the same army that had been protecting the outpost were ordered to evict Zar and the other settlers, rip down their barns and sheds and haul off their trailers. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, leader of the Labor Party who was then defense minister, had included the outpost in his program to dismantle about two dozen that were unauthorized . He criticized the settlers as potential terrorists and said that "protecting them is a security burden."
But the military's effort ran into protests. Hundreds of young people from surrounding settlements and outposts flocked to the farm just southwest of Nablus, hurling rocks, rotten vegetables and curses at the soldiers dispatched to move them. When soldiers attempted to drive their bulldozer to the hilltop, more than 100 protesters laid on the ground beneath the sharp teeth of the bulldozer's scoop.
"Traitors!" Jewish settlers screamed at the young Israeli soldiers. "Nazis! You sell weapons to the Arabs. You don't deserve your uniform."
One anguished soldier pressed his dirt-smeared face into the throng of protesters and pleaded, "I'm begging you! Listen to me, please leave."
"It's tough for soldiers," said one officer, watching a line of sweating troops haul struggling bodies from the path of the bulldozer like unwieldy sacks of cattle feed. "The psychology affects them. Some are from the same background; some are settlers themselves."
Zar, 27, the founding resident, hoisted a sobbing 2-year-old to his shoulders and paced in front of the demolition crews. He shouted at the law enforcement officials. "They are destroying our house. A 2-year-old child has to see Israeli soldiers and policemen destroying his home," he said.
Peace Now researchers said that few of the outposts dismantled by Ben-Eliezer were inhabited and that in the end only about nine unauthorized outposts were removed, rather than the ministry's stated 23.
Soon, in fact, Zar was back on his farm, living in tents with his family, a new group of young "hilltop boys," and two bony horses. "In a year or two when there's a settlement here, I will look back in nostalgia at the mud and the rain," said Zar, his face darkened by the stubble of several days' growth. "Evacuation will be impossible. You saw what happened here when they tried to move just one family."
Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.