Global Policy Forum

Creeping Construction Boom


By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

August 17, 2009


While politicians in Jerusalem squabble with the Americans over halting the construction of new settlements in the West Bank, the settlers themselves are quietly proceeding with construction in a bid to create a fait accompli on the ground. The radical young generation is even digging caves as outposts.

Yedidya, 18, is wearing braces and worn sandals, and his matted hair hasn't been cut in a while. When he speaks, he stares at the floor of the cave he has laboriously dug into the hillside with a shovel and a pickaxe over the last two years. The cave is the size of a child's room, and the books on the few wooden boards that serve as shelves include religious literature and works on the history of the Jewish underground movement. Articles of clothing are tucked into crevices in the rocky walls.

Yedidya is part of a vanguard of settlers known as Noar Hagvaot, or "Hilltop Youth." He and other youths are establishing illegal outposts deep inside the West Bank, mostly on Palestinian soil. Yedidya's outpost is between Nablus and Kalkilya. Yedidya and his friends call it Shvut Ami, or "Return of my People."

And indeed, returning is often what these settlers do. Shvut Ami has been evacuated more times that Yedidya can remember. "The army is constantly showing up here, and sometimes they destroy our camp. We just come back the next day," he says. That's the attraction of having a cave -- it's not so easy to destroy. A cave could be boarded up or filled in, but that would be too much work for the soldiers.

Grabbing the Hilltops

On this day, an army jeep pulls up to Shvut Ami. Three soldiers, who don't look any older than the young settlers themselves, tramp up the hill, smiling and looking relaxed. A few words are exchanged, and the youths climb down from their hill. One of them, carrying a plastic bag filled with dirty laundry, meets his parents in their car on the road below and they drive off.

That was an evacuation, says one of the soldiers, by way of explanation. The soldier leave in their jeep, and the young people climb back up the hill to finish eating the still-warm noodles they had just prepared on their camping stove.

Such evacuations are routine, part of a cat-and-mouse game between the army and the young vanguard of settlers living in the hills. Often politically insignificant, their outposts are nonetheless a provocation, especially for the Palestinians whose land they occupy. If the large Israeli settlements are a clenched fist, these small outposts are Israel's little finger, poking ever more deeply into the Palestinian West Bank.

While the parents live comfortably under the red roofs of the established settlements, their children are drawn to the hills. Yedidya says that he has no material needs for things like expensive clothes, an apartment or a car, and that he is leading a life for and with God. The second generation of settlers, radicalized by Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, is more nationalistic and religious than the first. These youths are unwilling to make compromises -- they don't want to trade land for peace.

The government's stance is ambivalent. On the one hand, it regards boys like Yedidya as potential troublemakers. On the other hand, it values them as young pioneers who are merely taking the words of then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon to heart, who said in 1998: "Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements." As a result, the evacuations are half-hearted at best, with the soldiers often looking the other way when sympathetic settlers bring the youths in Shvut Ami food and building materials.

A Laissez-faire Approach

There are more than 100 outposts in the West Bank that are illegal under international and Israeli law, as well as another 120 settlements only considered illegal under international law. The outposts are an alternative means of continuing to build settlements.

In March 2001, the Israeli government made a commitment not to approve any new settlements. Although it has abided by this commitment, it has also taken a laissez-faire approach to the settlers' activities. And they, with government aid in some cases, have expanded their outposts, even as various administrations have announced, from time to time, their intention to halt construction. But those intentions have never been put into practice.

Construction is still underway today, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama haggle over whether a building freeze in the settlements should apply for six months or a year, and whether 23 outposts should be evacuated, as was agreed years ago, or all 100 that have built since that agreement was reached. The number of settlers in the West Bank has grown from 200,000 to 300,000 within a decade, not including the settlers in East Jerusalem -- and that in a decade of peace processes, peace conferences, and road maps for peace.

Meanwhile, new outposts are constantly being built, evacuated and rebuilt, in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach. The settler activists seek to dominate the news, keep the army on its toes and mobilize the population. Most of all, however, they are trying to draw attention away from a much greater problem: the established settlements. For every youth on a hill, there are thousands of families in settlements like Maale Adumim, Ariel and Modiin Illit.

The outposts are a buffer of sorts. Small, independent cells deep in Palestinian territory, like Shvut Ami, with Yedidya and his cave, are at the periphery. Then there are outposts that were established by the Yesha Council, the political body representing the settlers in the West Bank. They usually consist of white or gray trailers, and sometimes real houses, some of which even have swimming pools and hot tubs. At the core are the official settlements, complete with town halls and industrial zones. Those settlements have residents who commute to jobs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Some of their inhabitants have long forgotten that they even live in a settlement.

Obama's Cabin

One of these established settlements is Kedumim. Its red roofs are visible from Shvut Ami, lined up like matchstick heads on the opposite ridge. Kedumim, a legal settlement under Israeli law, is a proper town, complete with a music academy, library and landscaped traffic islands. One of the first settlements to be founded, more than 34 years ago, Kedumim has 5,000 residents today. The words of Simon, Prince of the Maccabees, are engraved in stone at the entrance: "We have neither taken other men's land, neither do we hold that which is other men's: but the inheritance of our fathers, which was for some time unjustly possessed by our enemies."

Yedidya's dream is to turn Shvut Ami into a place like Kedumim.

And Daniela Weiss's dream is to protect Kedumim with a ring of outposts like Shvut Ami.

Weiss, 64, is one of the founders and a former mayor of Kedumim. She greets visitors in her single-family home, decorated with a heavy silver candleholder on the sideboard, dark wood furniture, and a ticking pendulum clock. She is wearing clunky shoes, a long skirt and the headscarf worn by the pious, rolled into a cap. She comes across as a friendly grandmother -- but she is also a radical leader of the settlers. Weiss co-founded Shvut Ami and dozens of other outposts, and some of her children live there. She proudly relates how she fractured a rib during one of the evacuations.

At last, Weiss appealed to the Hilltop Youth to build 11 new outposts. In defiance of opposition from the United States, she even named one of them "Obama's Shack." "These new outposts are the front," she openly admits. "As long as the government has its hands full with them, it can't deal with the other 23."

And as long as these 23 outposts, or perhaps even all 100, are not evacuated, the settlements themselves will not be evacuated. That includes Kedumim, which is so deep inside the West Bank that it would eventually have to be abandoned if a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is ever reached.

A few days later, the army attempts to clear three new trailers set up by the Yesha Council in the Bnei Adam outpost, which consists of about a dozen or so shacks altogether. But the residents refuse to leave, and the soldiers leave without having achieved anything. They are under orders not to provoke any excesses.

The next night, Weiss called upon hundreds of young people, who come by in droves over the course of the following day from the surrounding settlements, ready to resist the soldiers if they return.

About 30 youths are already there, equipped with sheets of plywood and wooden beams to build a new house. Every evacuation or attempted evacuation is met with resistance -- and with even more houses. This is the settlers' mode of operation.

"Building is our form of protest," says Tirael, who arrived in Bnei Adam a few hours ago. "The more the army destroys, the more we build."

She is familiar with rebuilding. Tirael lives in Ramat Migron, an illegal outpost on the opposite hill, where the army has torn down the wooden huts five times in the one-and-a-half years she has lived there. "But each time our houses become bigger and more beautiful," she says.

They live along on the hill, without parents, five girls, five boys, in two huts, says Tirael. They have no electricity, no telephone, they bring their water up the hill in bottles, and they earn money to buy food with casual work. Tirael sometimes works as a babysitter -- after school. She is only 16.

This time Tirael must accept defeat. Two days later, Israel's Supreme Court rules that Bnei Adam must be evacuated. But even as the young settlers make headlines, the settlers' leaders take a more inconspicuous and yet far more effective approach. There is currently a construction boom everywhere in the settlements of the West Bank. The more houses and residents the settlements acquire, the less possible it will be to evacuate them later. The withdrawal of the 7,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip cost Israel close to €2 billion ($2.85 billion) for security and compensation payments. By extrapolation, the cost of evacuating all 300,000 settlers from the West Bank could cost up to €80 billion -- more than the annual budget of the state of Israel.

An Artificial Distinction

And yet the government does not even take steps to prevent growth in the settlements that are illegal under Israeli law. On the contrary, the government spends millions on the outposts, in funds that are hidden deeply within the budgets of ministries, which do not distinguish between expenditures for Israel and for the occupied territories. At least 16 illegal outposts are financed directly, as the Israeli peace movement Peace Now shows in its most recent report. Power lines are still being installed, highways and schools built and local public transport subsidized.

This is precisely what Dror Etkes, 40, of the human rights organization Yesh Din calls the "Israeli dissonance." "There is a huge gap between what Israel is supposed to do under the Oslo Accords and what it has in fact done," he says.

For this reason, says Etkes, there is no point in differentiating between the outposts and the settlements. "The distinction the government draws between settlements and outposts is artificial -- intentionally so." The government wants the debate, Etkes argues, to be focused on the radical Hilltop Youth, while settlement construction continues.

The borders of many settlements were generously expanded in recent years, up to 40 percent of the West Bank are now under Israeli ownership. When houses are built on this land, the international protests are not nearly as vocal as when new settlements are established. But the consequences are the same: The Israeli population of the West Bank grows, while the prospects for a viable Palestinian state dwindle.

Creating a Fait Accompli

Peace activist Etkes is possibly the settlers' greatest enemy, even though he was once a settler himself. He grew up in French Hill, a Jewish enclave in Arab East Jerusalem, and he was stationed in the West Bank while serving in the military. He is intimately familiar with the area, and he is constantly scanning the ridges of hills to spot new illegal structures.

And his efforts are often successful. On this day, he has discovered 12 new trailers on the outskirts of the Kochav Yaakov settlements, in an area where new structures are illegal. Bulldozers are already on their way to clear the ground for additional residential units.

Etkes takes pictures and then calls Yesh Din's attorney. The group decides to write a petition immediately, hoping to obtain an order to tear down the illegal structures within a few days. The timing is critical, because it takes only a few days to connect the trailers to the electricity and water supply. Once the structures are occupied, it is often too late to conduct an evacuation. This is the settlers' tactic: to create a fait accompli within a few days.

Yesh Din has begun filing lawsuits against those who erect the illegal structures, who are in fact violating Israeli borders. The organization has already filed 20 suits, in which verdicts are still pending. But the pressure is already having the desired effect in some places -- for example, in Migron, a fortress-like hilltop settlement with two enormous antennas protruding from it like missiles. The Israeli army provides security for Migron, home to 322 people. Electricity from Israel keeps the streetlights lit, and the settlement has a kindergarten and high-speed Internet. Millions of euros in government funds have been pumped into Migron, even though it is an outpost -- the largest in the West Bank.

Migron is on the list of 23 illegal settlements on the original evacuation list. It has already been established that it will eventually be evacuated. The only question is when. The government is playing for time, as it negotiates, once again, to achieve an amicable solution.

It is already clear that Migron's settlers will not go to Israel proper, but instead will move to the other side of the valley, into the Adam settlement's new construction zone. Houses, roads and water lines will be built there soon. The new Migron will no longer be a trailer settlement, but a city of concrete buildings. And it'll be far more difficult to evacuate.


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