Amos Harel
Haaretz (Opinion)
July 10, 2009 - 12:00am

The mood in Jerusalem this week was one of shock. As if it weren't enough that the Obama administration is ignoring previous understandings between Israel and the Bush administration regarding natural growth in the settlements, now it seems there isn't agreement even on the outposts.

The Rice-Weissglas compromise, which stipulated that Israel would evacuate 26 outposts established in the West Bank after the Sharon government came to power in March 2001 (in the meantime, that number has been reduced to 23), is no longer accepted by the Americans. The daily Maariv has reported that the United States is now demanding the evacuation of more than 100 outposts included in United Nations lists and in a parallel report written by Israeli attorney Talia Sasson in 2005.

There's no denying it: You can't count on anyone these days. Israel, which, as is well known, has made good on all of its commitments - and there were many - regarding dismantling of outposts, now stands bewildered in the face of America's inconsistency.

Behind the American insistence on evacuations, which is polite but unyielding, is a basic grasp of reality. The U.S. is beating up on Israel because it can. President Barack Obama isn't particularly fond of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And the pressure coming from the administration about a building freeze in the Jewish settlements in the territories is generating a certain amount of support in the Arab countries, without costing the Americans anything. No Jewish organization in Washington is going to come out against the president on this issue.

Thus, the administration's official line is that everything - the settlements that are inside the large blocs and outside them, and on either side of the separation fence, plus the outposts established both before and after 2001 - has to stop (and in the case of all the outposts, also be dismantled).

In one way, at least, one can see the logic in the current American approach. The outposts are a continuation of the settlements by other means. The sharp distinction Israel makes between them is artificial. Every outpost is established with a direct connection to a mother settlement, with the clear aim of expanding the takeover of the territory and ensuring an Israeli hold on a wider tract of land. Construction in the outposts is integrated into the overall plan of the settlement project and is carried out in parallel to the seizure of lands within and close to the settlements.

If a permanent status agreement is ever signed, the crucial distinction for purposes of evacuation will not be based on chronology (when was the community in question established?) or morphology (is it an outpost or a settlement?), but rather geography: The site's location within a large bloc or west of the separation fence will increase its chances of remaining in place.

A tour this week of a number of settlements and outposts to the east of the barrier - Eli and its offshoots, Ofra, Migron, Psagot, Adam, Anatot and Kedar - led to some interesting conclusions. The first being that the real momentum in the outposts was already halted some years ago. This is reflected in the difference between the largest of the outposts, Migron (with about 60 trailers and two permanent homes), and "Obama's Shack," a few kilometers away, en route to Kochav Yaakov. The shack is the feeble initiative of a few teenaged disciples of former Kedumim mayor Daniella Weiss.

Support from the state

Migron is surrounded by a fence, guarded and connected to the necessary water and electricity infrastructures. Its "ascent to the land," even though it was done on private Palestinian property, and despite the fact that it was undertaken in a deceptive manner, has received backing and practical support from the state. The security establishment's declaration to the High Court of Justice this week that it would take more than a year to implement the compromise agreement, whereby the inhabitants of Migron would be moved to the adjacent settlement of Adam, shows that this backing is still in place.

By comparison, new faux-outposts like Shvut Ami go up and are taken down every week without leaving any significant impression, apart from a permanent headache for the Israel Defense Forces' brigade commanders.

The settler establishment's efforts are now aimed in other directions - building in the settlements and veteran outposts (often involving the smuggling in of parts of mobile homes, because the Civil Administration is now preventing the transport of such homes in their entirety) and taking over agricultural lands, some of which are privately owned by Palestinians. The advantage of the latter tactic is that maximum area is obtained with a tolerable monetary investment and a low profile is maintained. Dirt roads are being blazed, vineyards are being planted and the actual area of the settlements is growing, dunam by dunam.

Behind every settlement action there is a planning and thinking mind that has access to the state's database and maps, and help from sympathetic officers serving in key positions in the IDF and the Civil Administration. The story is not in the settlers' uncontrolled behavior, though there is evidence of this on some of the hilltops, but rather in conscious choices by the state to enforce very little of the law.

Most of the outposts were established during two periods: 1997 to 1999, whose climax came when foreign minister Ariel Sharon, upon his return from the Wye summit, called on the settlers to take over the hilltops; and later, between 2001 and 2003. Those were the terrible years of Palestinian shooting attacks on the roads of the West Bank and murderous infiltrations of settlements to perpetrate acts of slaughter.

During those years, the area of the settlements themselves increased. The symbiosis between the army and the settlers in the West Bank was at its peak then. Many of the terror attacks elicited "a suitable Zionist response" with the army's encouragement: the establishment of a new outpost or the pushing back of the fence around an existing settlement.

The settlers' moves were supported by surveillance cameras, protected roads, guards and often by declarations of a "special security zone." To prevent infiltration, the area of the settlements was expanded and Palestinians fromneighboring villages were prevented from approaching them. However, in the same breath, the moves were exploited for long-term goals, taking over and building on lands that were in large part private.

For nearly 12 years now, I have been intermittently covering the outposts, as part of my coverage of the army. Officially, the IDF doesn't see the connection between the defense establshment and the settlers. Construction in the territories is ostensibly a matter for settlement reporters and nosy activists from Peace Now. In fact, this connection is at the heart of the settlement project.

In March 1998, during a tour, I was told by the commander of the Samaria Area Brigade, in an afterthought, that although the Gidonim outposts near Itamar were established without a permit, the Defense Ministry was acting to "launder" them. On that same day, Eli Cohen, the defense minister's settlement adviser, was also touring the area. Queries put to the ministry by Knesset members were answered with evasive comments, but very quickly all the outposts in the vicinity were connected to all the necessary infrastructures.

Five years later, at the height of the Sharon prime ministership, a senior officer who had recently been demobilized after service in the territories volunteered to explain the facts of life to my colleague Guy Kotev and me. With the patience usually reserved for children who have difficulty understanding, he asked us whether we really believed that the outposts go up without the authorities' knowledge. He related that the director general of the settler organization Amana, Zeev Hever (known by his nickname, Zambish) was visiting the prime minister's residence at night to go over the maps with Sharon. "And after that you expect that we won't give them guards and we won't hook them up to the water system?" he wondered.

Most hated man

A few weeks ago on these pages Aluf Benn described Dror Etkes, formerly of Peace Now and currently working for the Yesh Din organization, as the person most hated in the settlements. His surveillance reports on construction are published in the media and arouse great interest among the Americans, to the displeasure of the Yesha people (Yesha is the acronym for Judea and Samaria - settler terms for the southern and northern West Bank, respectively). Etkes, 41, is a graduate of a religious high school in Jerusalem who long ago removed his skullcap but still has family in the settlements.

At least three times a week, Etkes goes out into the field in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, negotiating roads that aren't really roads, documenting, photographing and hastening to leave.

Like another person from the left, Col. (res.) Shaul Arieli, who specializes in roads and separation barrier, Etkes gets under the skin of the establishment by using its own tools. He is one of the first to have realized the advantages of the Freedom of Information Law, with the help of which he has built a broad database on the status of the lands in the West Bank. Analysis of this data is now allowing, for the first time, the unraveling of the sophisticated ways the annexation mechanism works. And just as Arieli succeeded, by legal means, in causing the route of the fence to be altered in several places so as to minimize damage to Palestinian inhabitants, Etkes is working in the area of the outposts. Petitions to the court in which he played a part were behind the big clash between the government and the settlers over the demolition of nine houses in Amona in 2006, the current move by the state to evacuate Migron, to the moving of a fire station in Kokhav Yaakov from off of private Palestinian land, and recently to the suspension of construction of a wastewater purification plant in Ofra, which was going up at a cost of NIS 7.8 million (in state money) on private land.

Etkes' most recent project deals with the enclaves - Palestinian lands that have been swallowed up inside settlement fences, and whose legal owners are being denied access to them. When the Civil Administration data on land ownership is superimposed by computer imaging onto aerial photographs of the settlements, a surprising picture emerges. Often, there are large enclaves. It is not at all difficult to identify them on the ground because in most cases private homes are not built on them. An inhabitant of a settlement is not going to want to risk having his home be on privately owned Palestinian land.

In settlements like Psagot and Anatot, it is possible to identify Palestinian enclaves that have become little more than abandoned lots. On some of them, destroyed agricultural terraces can be seen. Sometimes public buildings are erected on them (in Adam, there is a synagogue). If the state ever wakes up and decides to evacuate it, no one except for the Finance Ministry will lose money on it.

At the same time, veteran and well-established settlements are annexing, de facto, lands outside the fence. Thus, for example, vineyards have miraculously sprung up on lands owned by Palestinians around the settlement of Psagot.

With Obama's ultimatum, the settlers are for the first time encountering a serious opponent to their project. The increasing Israeli dependence on the United States, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rapid folding on the issue of a two-state solution, reflects this. The declarations by the settlers - from their leaders to the hilltop fanatics - of their intention to oppose any evacuation, testify to the lack of confidence that the entire settlement project is irreversible. The fate of the settlements and outposts to the east of the barrier is still in question, despite the physical expansion of the enterprise during the past two decades.

During the 16 years since the Oslo process began, the number of Israelis living east of the Green Line (pre-Six-Day War border) increased from 110,000 to about 300,000 (not including East Jerusalem). The number of building starts in the West Bank in 2008 was 40 percent greater than during the previous year. And this, it must be remembered, happened under prime minister Ehud Olmert, who sold Israelis a fabricated reality in which at any given moment, he was within a hair's breadth from a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians - an agreement in whose wake there would no longer be any need in the struggle for every hilltop.

Taking over the private property of someone who belongs to the neighboring people is a common phenomenon in the West Bank, even in recent years. We aren't talking here about things that happened back in 1948. It is possible, of course, to describe these moves as a necessary part of the life-and-death struggle between the two peoples, in the name of which nearly all means are justified.

One of the most obvious things learned from every visit is the extent to which things are done in a planned way, to this day. It is hard to miss the destroyed terraces in the settlement of Adam or the sight of the sewage flowing from Psagot, not far from the Binyamin regional council building, straight into the wadi that runs to the adjacent Palestinian town of El Bireh. But in those very same settlements live upstanding citizens, who would not cheat the grocer of 10 agorot and who would go out in the middle of the night to help a neighbor stuck on a dark road. In the outposts live scores of officers in the career army and the reserves, who serve in elite units and win citations for their courage. At the same time, according to the official state data, many of them have built their dream homes, a modest mobile home or a more luxurious villa, on land that has been stolen from someone else by force.


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