Settlers quietly re-establish outposts after Israeli army dismantles them. Jonathan Cook reports from the West Bank
More than 1,000 Israeli police officers and soldiers struggled all day last week to remove an "illegal" outpost -- home to 10 settlers -- on a hilltop south of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
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Taha Donun on the construction site next to his house watched by Israeli soldiers, talking to a Peace Now delegation. He has lost 100 dunums of land to a new bypass road being built for two small settlements
Hundreds of other settlers, mainly Jewish religious extremists, came to defend Mitzpe Yitzhar after a court order preventing the dismantling of the site was finally lifted on Thursday. It was the first inhabited settlement to be taken down.
It looked -- and was meant to look -- like a turning point in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's relationship with the decades-old settlement project in the occupied Palestinian territories.
During his long political career, Sharon has been one of the chief architects of "Greater Israel": the gradual and de facto annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. In 1998, as Israel began ceding parcels of land under the Oslo agreements, Sharon notoriously called on the settlers to "grab hilltops".
There is little reason, however, to believe that Sharon is a new convert to the downsizing of Israel.
Rather he has come under intense American pressure behind the scenes to implement the meagre conditions required of him in the first phase of Washington's roadmap to a Palestinian state: the freezing of settlement growth and the removal of dozens of "illegal outposts" established under his premiership. All settlements are illegal under international law, which forbids an occupying power from transferring its population into the occupied territory; the outposts are illegal in Israeli law too.
The precise number of outposts created since March 2001 is unclear. According to Peace Now, the figure stands at around 60; according to some US officials, it may top 100. What is known is that earlier this month the Israeli army handed the Yesha Council, the settlers' governing body in the West Bank and Gaza, a list of 15 outposts that were to be removed. All but four were uninhabited.
These sites are known -- even by the settlers -- as "dummy outposts": small clusters of tents or dilapidated caravans that are established as bargaining counters in the settlers' negotiations with the government.
Their destruction can be traded for the licensing of inhabited outposts, and the televised pictures of soldiers manhandling Jewish youths elicit waves of sympathy for the settler movement from other Israelis, most of whom ordinarily want the settlements evacuated.
But the biggest advantage to the settlers is that a sacrificed outpost can be quietly re-established as soon as the army and television cameras have left. The crackdowns, despite appearances, are a win-win game for the settlers.
In fact, this is not the first time the government has appeared to turn on the settlers. Last October the then Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Labour Party leader at the time, began a campaign to remove a dozen outposts. Most famously, he sent soldiers to confront hundreds of "hilltop youths" at Havat Gilad, west of Nablus, where they were greeted with curses and stone-throwing. Although the Gilad outpost was dismantled, it was soon re-established as were most of the other sites supposedly taken down six months ago.
There is every sign that the same ritual is being played out again. Yesha Council leader Benzi Lieberman even boasted to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz at the weekend that 10 new outposts had secretly been erected. He refused to reveal their locations but at least some of the sites were revived "dismantled" outposts. For example, the few tents and a shipping container that comprised Neve Tsuf, north of Ramallah, which was removed on 15 June, were replaced a few days later. The site was hastily set up earlier this month to mark the spot where two Israeli women were injured during a shooting attack.
Progress on destroying the four inhabited sites listed by the government was delayed by petitions lodged by the settlers that have been treated with unusual indulgence by the courts. The opportunity to dismantle Mitzpe Yitzhar came only when the courts dismissed the petitions of the settlers living there.
The timing, however, was fortuitous: the settlers were evicted the day before US Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in the region to visit Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. In fact, the army began dismantling the site on the morning of 19 June, before the way had been fully cleared for it by the High Court. The judges still had to rule on a petition by one settler who had been missed in the original evacuation order. Nonetheless the army pressed ahead, with the court duly dismissing the last petition later that day.
The political coordination between the government, the settlers, the army and the courts suggested that, far from being a real attempt to begin evacuating settlements, the events of the last fortnight were a charade making use of the outposts as a backdrop.
If Sharon was serious about implementing the limited provisions of the roadmap, he could have dedicated his energies to the more painful but productive task of evacuating the few thousand settlers in the Gaza Strip, a concession that would have sent a hugely reassuring message to Palestinians that the Israeli government was taking a new direction.
It would also have vastly simplified the proposed transfer of power in the Strip from the Israeli army to the Palestinian security forces under Mohamed Dahlan.
Instead Sharon chose to rearrange the furniture on a few hilltops in the West Bank, a territory in which some 400,000 Israeli settlers are now firmly entrenched, many of them in small fortified cities around Jerusalem.
For those who doubt the deception, including some of the more extremist -- and literalist -- settlers, Sharon offered more than a hint of his true intentions. On Sunday he told a cabinet meeting that Israel could carry on building settlements in the territories "but should not celebrate the construction". The point, apparently, is to ensure only that Israel does not rub the international community's nose in this West Bank farce.
Asked whether the settlement of Ariel, home to nearly 20,000 Israelis, could be expanded, Sharon said it was possible -- apparently forgetting that such a move would violate the freeze on settlement expansion he agreed to at the Aqaba summit on 4 June. In fact, for anyone travelling through the West Bank, the orgy of Israeli construction is only too evident. At Avne Hafez, for example, an "authorised" settlement of some 1,000 Israelis close to Tulkarm, there are cranes working everywhere on erecting blocks of flats.
Intensive settlement building has been going on since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993: over the last decade the settler population has increased by some 60 per cent to 400,000, and the population living outside illegally annexed east Jerusalem has nearly doubled to 195,000.
The reason, says Dror Etkes of Peace Now, who monitors settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza, is that successive governments of the left and right wanted to create facts on the ground that would undermine the spirit of Oslo and make a Palestinian state unrealisable.
By dotting settlements and outposts around the main Palestinian population centres, Israel has gained control of nearly half the territory of the West Bank, including its vital water resources.
To encourage Israelis to move into the territories, the governments of Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and now Sharon have offered huge subsidies in almost every sphere of the settlers' lives.
One study last year by Zvi Ekstein, an economist at Tel Aviv University, suggested that settlers received as much as 16 times the government funding of ordinary Israelis. Most is hidden in the annual budget but some of the money has been identified:
* A treasury report last November revealed that 160,000 settlers enjoyed tax breaks worth some $30m in 2001, including tax rebates of seven per cent for those in the West Bank and 10 per cent for those in Gaza. In 2003, the tax breaks were costing $120m, according to information released by Meretz MK Mussi Raz.
* At least $60m has been spent on bypass roads in the West Bank in the past three years, with a similar amount budgeted for this year alone. Over the last decade three times as much has been spent per capita on paving roads in the occupied territories as has been spent in Israel.
* The army pays more than $2m rent each year to settlements for buildings used by soldiers to protect the sites. Many outposts also hook themselves up to the electricity supplies of military bases, leaving the army -- and Israeli taxpayers -- to foot the bill.
* Municipal budgets, according to a study last year by the Adva think-tank in Tel Aviv, were on average 60 per cent higher for settlements than they were for Jewish communities inside Israel over the past decade. Publicly funded house construction was more than 60 per cent higher in the settlements than inside Israel.
* Raz's figures revealed that 40 per cent of the rural construction budget went to the settlers, even though they are less than seven per cent of the population.
* A B'Tselem report shows that government discounts mean the cost of land in the occupied territories is between 50 and 70 per cent cheaper than in Israel.
* Almost all settlers receive a 90 per cent discount on pre- school tuition fees.
These figures do not include the huge defence bill incurred by Israel in guaranteeing the safety of the settlers, including the colossal costs currently being incurred to divert the wall being constructed around the West Bank to include as many of the more established settlements as possible.
Meretz MK Ran HaCohen was at a Knesset committee meeting last June where a Defence Ministry official, Yossi Vardi, admitted that there were three times the number of soldiers guarding the settlements and outposts as before the Intifada. At the same meeting the army demanded an extra $250m for settlement protection.
The parasitic relationship between the settlers and the army was highlighted this week when it was revealed that an infantry brigade preparing to begin service in the Palestinian city of Hebron, to protect a small enclave of 400 extremist settlers, had been addressed by a local settler leader, Noam Arnon. The meeting was apparently considered a normal part of the soldiers' induction and only came to light because a soldier objected to political remarks made by Arnon.
In fact, it is unclear whether the soldiers are in the West Bank and Gaza to safeguard the settlers, or whether the settlers are in the West Bank and Gaza to justify the presence of so many soldiers.
The one certainty is that both are tools of the government, used to provide constant justifications for confiscating more land from Palestinians: the expanding settlements and outposts eat up land close to Palestinian towns and villages, and the army can then declare closed military zones around the sites, on the grounds that the settlers need protecting.
The extent of the deception currently being perpetrated by Sharon, in destroying a few outposts while leaving the real problem untouched, was highlighted by a tour of the hilltops south of Bethlehem at the weekend led by Peace Now outpost hunter Dror Etkes.
He took a group of 30 left-wing Israelis to the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements that form a barrier between Bethlehem and Hebron. They stopped at Neve Daniel, a settlement established by Israel in 1982 that lies across the valley from the Palestinian village of Al-Khader, to the southwest of Bethlehem. Several cranes there are constructing yet more luxury villas to add to those already inhabited by some 800 settlers.
About half a kilometre along the ridge is Neve Daniel North, an "illegal" outpost set up a year ago as an "agricultural institute". Then there were only two caravans and a water tower; now there are about 10 caravans, four of them inhabited by families, guarded by a military base which is supplying the caravans with electricity.
"This is how a new settlement is born," says Etkes. "As soon as soldiers are attached to the site it is given a legitimacy by the government, whether or not it is still officially illegal. It becomes part of Israel's security needs. Within time it will become a new neighbourhood of Neve Daniel."
As the Peace Now coach pulled into the road leading to the settlement, it was greeted by a police van and two army jeeps. Alongside them was a car driven by the head of the Gush Etzion settlers council, Shaul Goldstein. Although the coach was not stopped from entering the area, Etkes told his party: "The army and the settlers know our every movement. They work together closely." He says the expansion of the outposts, which has been gathering pace in the last few years, is a reaction by the settlers to the Oslo process. "The settlement expansion began in the mid-1990s and it's been like an amoebae ever since, constantly growing."
The inhabitants of Neve Daniel now control swaths of land owned by Palestinians from surrounding villages like Al- Khader and Nahalin. After the army declared the surrounding area a closed military zone, Palestinian farmers were unable to reach their land. Under Ottoman law, if the land is uncultivated for three years it reverts to state ownership (in this case, becoming Israeli).
One farmer, 32-year-old Daoud Nassar from Bethlehem, has been struggling for a decade to keep hold of 400 dunums (100 acres) of fields registered in the name of his father in 1924. His lands are now encircled by the "authorised" settlements of Neve Daniel, Elazar, Allon Shevut and Rosh Zurim, as well as their "illegal" outgrowths -- Derech Haavot, Givat Hahish and Beerot Yitzhak.
Despite having ownership papers from the Ottomans, British, Jordanian and Israeli authorities, he has been fighting a legal battle through the Israeli courts since 1991 when the army declared the area state land.
Like his neighbours his lands were confiscated, in his case after the military courts ruled in January 2000, following a series of postponements, that he could not prove his ownership claim. He is currently appealing to the High Court, which has temporarily halted attempts by Neve Daniel to build access roads through his land.
But, according to Peace Now, the settlers will probably find a way to circumvent the law. Etkes says he responded to an official advert placed by the Gush Etzion council a fortnight ago asking for applications from "pioneer families". Without revealing his identity, he called the number on the leaflet and discovered that settler families were being recruited to set up an outpost on land close to Nassar's fields.
"Once the families are recruited, a road will have to be built through Daoud's land and an army base established to protect it. He will lose his land to the settlers."
Similar land thefts are taking place -- at an even more official level -- a short distance away close to two settlements southeast of Bethlehem: Tekoa and Noqedim. The latter is home to Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the avowedly racist National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu Party and a cabinet minister.
Last summer some 4,000 Palestinian villagers at Zatara discovered that a giant bypass road had been approved through their lands to connect the two settlements to Har Homa, a recently completed "city settlement" close to Jerusalem.
The need for the project, which is costing at least $15m, is based on a "combination of land and security considerations", according to the Defence Ministry. Officials also say it will enable the residents of Gush Etzion to reach Jerusalem more safely because they can avoid using roads that run through local Palestinian villages. What the ministry fails to mention is that there have been no incidents of violence in the area during the Intifada.
With the new eight-kilometre road in place, the villagers will lose hundreds of acres of land to the project, as well as more land that they cannot reach because it will be declared a military zone. If previous precedents are followed, Palestinians will also be banned from using their own roads in the area, many of which will cross the main highway.
Taha Donun, whose home lies on the very edge of the building site where bulldozers are levelling the land for the road, said he and his brothers had already had 100 dunums confiscated by the army. His cousin's house had been demolished.
Etkes said: "The road is pure incitement. It has no other purpose other than to steal land and instill yet more hatred in Palestinian hearts."