Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Aluf Benn: West Bank road trip

19 June 2009

By Aluf Benn, Haaretz – 19 June 2009

A visit to the West Bank two days after the prime minister’s Bar-Ilan speech leads one to conclude that the ideological about-face implicit in Benjamin Netanyahu’s consent to a Palestinian state has not upset the people living where this state is supposed to arise. The settlers listened to Netanyahu, but were more interested in his promise to enable them to have “a normal life.” Furthermore, they wondered if this would translate into Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s signature on delayed building permits. They were also interested in Netanyahu’s decision to add MK Uri Ariel (National Union), a Beit El resident, to the committee for selecting judges. Perhaps herein lay a chance to gradually alter the approach of the Supreme Court, an institution much despised by the settlers?

I traveled to the northern West Bank as a guest of Israel Harel, a resident of Ofra, former chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements and a Haaretz columnist. Harel belongs to the founding generation of the settlement movement, and is intimately familiar with the ups and downs in its dealings with the state. He and his friends miss the days when the state saw them as pioneers and trailblazers, and still dream of hundreds of thousands of Jews settling in the West Bank, which would resolve the dispute over the land once and for all.

Life here centers around the struggle over the Land of Israel. It is a multilayered struggle, and the settlers encounter it wherever they look. For example, in the daily fight over control of property, waged against the Palestinian neighbor who comes to harvest his olive trees or to plow a field next to a settlement. In the struggle with the authorities that want to dismantle the outposts. In the arguments with the army, which the settlers believe is ineffective, like the UN in its efforts to mediate between the settlers and the Palestinians. In the battle over another glimmer of legal recognition that will further blur the difference between the settlements and the Israel of the Green Line. In the legal dispute against Dror Etkes of the Yesh Din movement and against Peace Now, which are seeking to have the outposts dismantled on the grounds that the land was stolen from its Palestinian owners. In the struggle over the historical narrative as to who was here first: our patriarch Abraham or “the Arabs.” And in the debate over the exact wording of the speeches made by U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu, which shape political reality.
The hard-core settlers are not ashamed of their efforts to establish “facts on the ground” that will perpetuate Israeli control of the territories. To the contrary: They are proud of them. But they understand that it is impossible to sell their struggle to the Israeli mainstream, which is busy watching reality TV and dreaming of a bigger house and American-style consumption. Hence, in conversations with guests from Gush Dan, the settlers like to emphasize their normalcy, the fact that they use the same slang, and their affinity for the same values and institutions.

‘We could be brothers’

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement split the settlement movement as to which stance should be adopted toward the state. The more established majority would like the state to embrace and adopt it, and devotes much effort toward attaining this goal. Yigal Cohen-Orgad, former finance minister and founder and president of the Ariel University Center of Samaria, takes pride in his students’ accomplishments, in the researchers’ successes and in the heterogeneous makeup of its student body. But his main desire is for his institution to be recognized as a university, with a budget from the Council for Higher Education and without having to confront any more political obstacles.

More than any other West Bank settlement, Ariel is perceived as an extension of the “state within the Green Line” – probably because of its large secular population. But when you cross into the eastern part of the city, the human landscape suddenly changes, fitting the stereotype of settlers with knitted skullcaps, long skirts and lots of kids on bikes.

The settlement of Eli, seven kilometers from Ariel, was planned as a big city and stretches over a vast area. But the people didn’t come, and the mountainous topography – combined with land ownership and registration problems – has produced a scattered cluster of small and sparsely populated neighborhoods with a total of 3,000 residents. Ideology cannot trump sociology: In the settlements, as in any other community, distance from the center may mean economic opportunity and thus affect the locality’s attractiveness. But here, distance is not measured solely in kilometers and travel time, but also in mentality. The center of life in Eli is the pre-military academy that attracts religious students from all over the country and basks in the glory of Maj. Ro’i Klein, an Eli resident and hero of the Second Lebanon War, who was killed when he lept on a grenade to save his soldiers.

Kobi Eliraz, who is the head of Eli’s local council, and is bald like me, removes his skullcap and declares: “Look, we could be brothers.” He takes his guests to see the local attraction – an old train car that has been fixed up as a restaurant – and fantasizes about turning it into a weekend haunt that would attract visitors from the center. The landscape is stunning, “like in the Galilee’s Amirim,” and yet the tourists aren’t coming. Eliraz is disappointed by most Israelis’ refusal to cross “the eastern threshold of Ariel,” after which the real “land of the settlers” begins. He works in the Housing Ministry, helping to resettle Gush Katif evacuees in the Lachish region. He recognizes the authority of the state, and if it wants to evacuate him from Eli, he says, he’ll fight the decision – but go along with it.

Parts of Eli are defined as illegal outposts, but here, in another stab at normalcy, they insist on calling them “neighborhoods” and not “hilltops.” Tamar Asraf, local council spokeswoman, lives in one of these outposts – defined as such because part of it was built in the wake of “the definitive date” of March 2001, after which the Sharon government pledged not to build more settlements. Formerly secular, and originally from Ra’anana, Asraf talks about love, echoing the Yesha Council’s media messages.

‘We rely on force’

When you ascend to Yitzhar, the atmosphere changes yet again. Residents of this settlement – which has become a symbol of Kahane-ism, violent friction with Palestinian neighbors and the struggle against the dismantling of outposts – long ago lost any faith or interest in the state and the Israel Defense Forces. Nor do they even try to convince a visitor that there is no difference between Yitzhar and Tel Aviv.

Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who teaches at the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva here and at other yeshivas in the area, does not fly the flag on Independence Day. When he beholds the flag bearing the Star of David, he sees the Palestine Liberation Organization’s flag behind it, “ever since they gave them weapons” (i.e., as part of the Oslo Accords).

Ariel says that if the state leaves Yitzhar, he and his comrades will remain, “whether it’s under Palestinian rule or under a war with the Palestinians,” with weapons that they’ll purchase with donations from Jews abroad. “We’re activists and collectivists,” he says, explaining the group’s philosophy: “If one of them [the Palestinians] hurts us, the whole village is guilty.” Last summer, after a Palestinian youth wounded a child in Yitzhar, a group of male settlers went on a rampage in the neighboring village, Asira al-Kabiliya.

It was no simple undertaking, Ariel says – the Palestinians live in fortified houses, and even the settlers have limits: “I’m not going to spend my life in jail,” he clarifies. The incident provoked an uproar. Then-prime minister Ehud Olmert called it a “pogrom,” but Yitzhar’s residents were pleased. Fact: The army, which had negligently allowed the Palestinian youth to infiltrate the settlement, killed him when he tried to do so again.

“Here we rely on force, and if the Arabs do something we respond with force and don’t rely on the army,” says the soft-spoken Ariel, who grew up in Ramat Aviv, but came to the territories to live near Joseph’s Tomb.

Noa Ariel, the rabbi’s wife, is a puppeteer who performs for women all over the country. Her hit show is about domestic violence, and she is a volunteer counselor for couples in crisis. She drives us in her Toyota pickup truck to the hilltops of Yitzhar, over which the battle of the outposts is being waged. On each hilltop are a few cabins, the homes of hilltop youths who’ve grown up and gotten married, like their son David Ariel. “What do you need these outposts for,” I ask. And Rabbi Ariel replies: “People here love freedom, to live in nature without boundaries and fences, and besides, it’s better to wage the battle on the hilltops and not in the heart of the community. Time and again, the cabins have been dismantled and then rebuilt.”

“It’s hard to do a big evacuation, because it requires preparations and a concentration of personnel and we discover them,” he explains. “A surprise evacuation only works with one house, not more.”

To a visitor from the distant coastal plain, a 50-minute drive from Yitzhar, the obsessive preoccupation with outposts seems silly and exaggerated. Sharon turned the political debate about the land’s future into a discussion about law enforcement and illegal construction, and the High Court is overwhelmed with endless petitions in which the state keeps trying to postpone the evacuation. These cabins are not going to determine the fate of the Land of Israel, and anyone who portrays them as the core of our existence – and we’re not only talking about the settlers fighting to keep them there, but also left-wing activists fighting against them in the courts – is sidelining the main issue rather than dealing with it. For a moment I imagined Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch tossing all the outpost cases in the trash and forcing the state to decide just where the border lies, instead of playing hide-and-seek with David Ariel and his comrades on the hilltops.

But this is not about to happen, and as we reach Migron, the largest outpost and the last stop on our tour, Itai Harel, Israel’s son and a leading figure here, brings us coffee and some aerial photos meant to prove land ownership, denying the Palestinian neighbors’ claims opted by the Supreme Court as the basis for the evacuation order. Forget it, I tell him, that’s not what really matters. Let’s talk about politics.

“You’re right,” Itai says. “Obama doesn’t want the outposts, or Ofra and Givat Ze’ev either. We are a free people in our land and not a state of the United States. If we’ve elected a government with a majority that wants us to be in Migron, and certainly in Ofra – is that Obama’s business? The truth is, he did a good thing. There are some people with their heads in the sand who will say that it’s because of the outposts, but the question is really whether we’re a free people in our land.”

At this point, his message reminds me of the speech by Netanyahu, who actually made no mention of the outposts, but – like Itai Harel – spoke of the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, before offering the Palestinians “a demilitarized state.

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