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.
Israeli leaders dispute that assertion, although they have pledged to eliminate the outposts, which proliferated with the start of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acknowledged recently that Israel is not meeting its obligations, and other officials have suggested that a crackdown could follow Bush's visit.
"Israel has an obligation under the road map to remove the remaining unauthorized outposts," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert. "We will be doing so, we are committed to do so, and work is already underway in order to bring about tangible action on this matter."
The inability to evacuate even small outposts like Shvut Ami fuels Palestinian claims that the Israeli government's efforts are mostly for show and demonstrates the difficulty Israel will have in meeting Bush's demand, particularly with regard to larger, more established outposts. During peace talks last week, settlers began work on at least three new outposts, according to Daniella Weiss, a longtime leader in the settler movement who recently delivered pots of hot soup to the settlers building Shvut Ami.
"We intend to ensure that Jews stay in Judea and Samaria, and the best way to do that is to establish more communities," said Weiss, using the biblical term for the West Bank favored by some Israelis. "The prime minister may be foolish enough to compromise, but the young generation will not. They don't even speak to the army when they come to remove them, because the army's job is to deal with Israel's enemies, not its citizens."
According to Weiss, at least 10 new outposts are under construction across the West Bank. On the day Bush arrived, the army destroyed one shanty-like structure at Netzer, near Bethlehem, and moved a large boulder to block the road leading into it, a rocky dirt track that can be traveled only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. But residents of a nearby settlement called Alon Shvut vowed the shanty would soon be rebuilt.
"I have six kids and they're all going to need places to live, so we have to keep expanding," said Hagay Yakutiel, 43, a lawyer who lives in Alon Shvut, as he trudged through the mud to survey what remained of Netzer: a few shattered sheets of plywood and some severed rubber pipes.
Palestinian leaders welcome the American pressure to remove the outposts. But some also worry that the focus on outposts, in which an estimated 3,000 Jews live, diverts attention from an issue they consider far more important: the government-sponsored settlements themselves.
"Definitely, the focus on outposts is a distraction from what we want to be talking about," said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament who led an anti-Bush demonstration in Ramallah during the president's visit. "You have some little building with two people in it and the army comes in and destroys it, and then they say, 'See, we are doing what we said we'd do.' "
If Israeli officials were serious about removing outposts, Barghouti and others said, they would start with full-scale villages, like Migron, where 43 families inhabit dozens of white trailers atop a hill north of Jerusalem. In 2005, an official commission headed by Israel's former chief state prosecutor concluded that the entire settlement was built on privately owned Palestinian land -- and that half of all outposts have appropriated land belonging to Palestinians -- but the government has taken no action against it.
"Olmert is playing a game. In the Israeli way of thinking, Migron is hugely important. People would go crazy if they tried to take it down," said Yakutiel, the settler from Alon Shvut. "But they know they can get away with ruining places like Netzer, because so far, it's nothing."
Dror Etkes, who spent five years monitoring outposts for the Israeli advocacy group Peace Now, said the government is reluctant to take action because, while it officially describes the outposts as unauthorized, it has played a major role in planning, funding and encouraging some of them. Many draw power from the main Israeli grid and receive other public services, including water supply. A reporter attempting to enter Migron to speak with residents was turned away by an Israeli soldier posted outside the gate.
"It is a way of manipulating the situation," Etkes said. "They will say, 'This is not an outpost. It's just a new neighborhood for the outpost right over there.' Then all of a sudden, the neighborhood is bigger than the whole outpost was before."
But even smaller outposts such as Shvut Ami and Netzer must be abolished, Etkes said, because if left standing they could serve as precursors to larger development, as has happened often. Then there are the Palestinians with claims to the land on which the smaller outposts are built.
Two miles from Shvut Ami, across a highway and a craggy valley in the Palestinian village of Kufur Kadum, Badriya Amer, 54, said she can hardly bear to look out her window at what she says was once her home. In a tattered plastic bag she carries papers she says document her family's ownership, including surveying maps that depict a three-acre plot and the two stone buildings and a written deed dated March 1983 with her father's name printed on it.
The olive trees on the property provided more than 2,000 pounds of olive oil annually for her family until this year, when the settlers prevented them from harvesting the crop. "When we tried, they chased us away with guns," she said. Landesberg said his pistol is the sole weapon on site and fires only plastic pellets.
Amer is scheduled to appear in court in Tel Aviv on Jan. 22, to try to reestablish her right to the land. The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din is supporting her efforts. But she isn't optimistic. "I put my faith in God, not in courts, but I have no other option," she said.
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.