West Bank's Jewish 'Outposts' Dig In

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 13, 2008

SHVUT AMI, West Bank -- With a pellet gun in his jeans pocket and a hammer in his hand, Dani Landesberg and a crew of teenage Jewish settlers began adding a second story to what has become their new home. They stole occasional glances down the winding access road in case the police came by to evict them, again.

Last Sept. 30, a dozen settlers moved into the small stone house at the base of a gentle hill in the northern West Bank and turned what was once a barn for donkeys into a synagogue. Two weeks later, Israeli security forces banished them for the first of eight times from land that a Palestinian family says is its property, a claim backed by legal documents and an Israeli human rights group.

The settlers returned the next day, so police sealed the windows and doors with metal siding and plowed a berm across the driveway, all to no avail.

"They can drag us away a hundred times and we'll come back," said Landesberg, 18, who like many religious Jews wears a yarmulke and long, curled sideburns. "And if the army wants to stay and guard it, then we win, because if the Israeli army is here, the land is being occupied by Jews."

In the incremental struggle for land in the West Bank, this "outpost," or Jewish settlement unauthorized by the Israeli government, and about 100 others like it, have emerged as a front line.

With a new round of peace talks underway, the Israeli government is under intense pressure to hand back parts of the occupied West Bank, starting with the outposts, according to the terms of the Bush administration's 2003 "road map," the basis for the current dialogue. First steps required of Palestinians include a halt to violent attacks on Israel.

On the eve of his visit to the region last week, President Bush called on Israeli leaders to "honor their commitments" and "get rid of unauthorized settlements." Palestinians say Israel's efforts thus far to remove outposts have been scattershot and insincere.

Settlers have responded to Bush's comments not by curtailing construction, but by expanding it.

Shvut Ami, which means "the return of our people," doesn't look like much. The settlers sleep five to a room, men separately from women, with only thin mattresses between them and the earthen floor. Decor consists of bumper stickers with slogans such as "Hebrew labor" and "No Arabs, no terror attacks." A few tattered Jewish Bibles sit on a lone shelf.

Ranging from a single hastily built plywood shack to full-scale communities for dozens of families, the outposts represent a provocative land grab by settlers seeking to expand their territory in the West Bank, which Israel captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Sometimes they are described as a neighborhood, or offshoot, of a nearby government-authorized settlement. But often there is no Jewish community within a mile or more.

The Israeli government has authorized and funded scores of settlements in the West Bank over the years, where about 260,000 Jews now live. Under international law, it is illegal to settle land seized in war, and Palestinians say the settlements now pose one of the greatest obstacles to peace.

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