Israel's refuseniks: The wild frontier

Deep in the occupied West Bank, a group of hardline settlers is reasserting Jewish 'ownership' of territory that any peace deal would hand to the Palestinians. Donald Macintyre reports
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The Independent Online

The one aspect of Ma'ale Rehavam on which everyone can agree is that the views are spectacular. From the hilltop above it, you can see how the rock and grass Judaean hills to the west merge into the barer desert stretching east to the Dead Sea. Somewhere in this wilderness Jesus withstood the temptation of Satan. Away to the north-west the skyline is dominated by the massive conical mound – like a woman's breast, as the historian Josephus noted in the century after it was built – of Herodion, where Herod built a palace fortress and reputedly was buried. The landscape, eerily quiet, the morning breeze crisply cold despite the sunshine, is much the same as it was in Herod's time.

Yet even at this viewpoint you cannot escape the politics of this conflicted land. The summit is marked by a wooden canopy flying the blue and white Israeli flag. Outside, a cast-iron Star of David looks west towards more than a dozen caravans of the little Jewish outpost below. Since we are deep in the occupied West Bank, the meaning could hardly be clearer. It represents, as a Ma'ale Rehavam resident, Danny Halamish, explains, "our claim to the land."

On first encounter Mr Halamish, 37, who has driven us to the top of the hill in his little open-top 4x4, is a typical outgoing, – if downshifted – secular Israeli. He works part time "to reduce my voluntary contribution" to the taxman, spending much of his time in Ma'ale Rehavam, with its small olive and almond groves, and a lavishly planted fruit orchard. But he still drives three days a week to his job as a computer programmer in Yavneh, south of Tel Aviv, having returned to Israel in 2000 after seven years working in London and Bristol when he had completed his army service.

Born in the Jewish West Bank settlement of Ofra, he left for Britain around the time of the Oslo accords because "it was clear to me that this experiment was going to be a terrible failure". He didn't accept, he says, any of the basic premises of Oslo such as that "peace is more important than anything else".

While in England he "realised that I did care about my Jewish identity". For Mr Halamish that meant something it would not mean for very many Israelis: a reassertion of Jewish "ownership" of the whole land of "Eretz" Israel, from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan. (Mr Halamish actually subscribes to the biblical notion of a even larger Israel, stretching all the way to the Euphrates, but explains he doesn't envisage that "tomorrow", adding that the Jews can wait, having already "waited 2000 years.")

But for Mr Halamish the choice to live in territory which would, if the current faltering peace talks ever worked, be in the heart of a future Palestinian state answers a central question about the land: "Does it belong to the Jewish people or does it not belong to the Jewish people?" He himself is firmly resolved that it does. "This represents the claim of the Jews over the land of Israel. That's why we put our caravans in the land of Israel."

Mr Halamish is an adherent of the far-right Jewish Leadership, a Militant Tendency-style "party within a party" in Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud. In his basic three-room mobile home, his computer screen-saver is a picture of his two-year-old daughter Naomi – holding a banner which proclaims: "The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel." True to this mantra, Mr Halamish's view of the "land of Israel's" Palestinian population is that "they have to go back to their own land, to their homeland of Saudi Arabia just like my grandfather left Germany to go back to Israel".

Israel's stated preparedness to divide the land is the problem, not the solution, he believes. "If the Jewish people were to say clearly this is our land and we will never give it away, that would mean the Arabs would give up the fight because they have no reason." Instead, he argues, what has happened is "quite the opposite; the more they shoot, the more they get". Mr Halamish is not convinced by polls suggesting a majority of Israelis are opposed to the settlements let alone to the outposts like these, but says anyway that "the democratic principle of the majority is a Greek idea, not a Jewish one. The Jewish idea is that the truth is decisive, not popular opinion."

But there is a problem. For outposts like Ma'ale Rehavam not only contravene international law - like the much larger settlements themselves - but are clearly, because they have no formal "authorisation" from the state, illegal under Israeli law. This is why Israel has faced continual calls for the past four years, most recently from President George Bush, to dismantle them.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has repeatedly stuck by the internationally agreed "road map", saying that the Palestinian leadership must meet its requirement to act against the armed groups before it can have a state. But the road map, written in 2003, also requires that Israel "immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001".

According to a Western diplomat in Jerusalem, the outposts are a "particular test" of Israel's good faith in the negotiations that Mr Bush's visit in January was supposed to energise. "The requirement in the road map is very clear," the diplomat added. "People will be looking for Israeli movement on this issue."

In 2004, mainly to mollify an uneasy Washington, the then prime minister Ariel Sharon commissioned a report on the outposts from a leading Israeli lawyer, Talia Sasson. The report she produced in March 2005 identified 24 outposts erected since March 2001, and Ma'ale Rehavam was near the top of that list. But it was also a devastating expose of how they had been established with the secret connivance – and funding – of government agencies, notably including the ministries of housing and defence.

True to the incremental process described by Ms Sasson, Mr Halamish now calls Ma'ale Rehavam, a "settlement", even though it was not only never officially sanctioned but actually designated in 2004 by the Israeli military's central command for dismantling with a formal "delimitation" order. This is consistent with the history of "outposts" which started to grow only after 1996, when the Rabin government decreed that no more new settlements would be built.

Mr Halamish explains that the outpost was "partially funded by us and partially by various government agencies". Indeed the Sasson report records that it received 700,000 shekels (£100,000) from the Ministry of Housing and Construction. On whether its water and electricity were connected to the national grids with government help or unilaterally by its residents via Nokdim, he adds that it was a "bit of both". To Mr Halamish this contradiction simply illustrates that the "state of Israel, like the people of Israel, have a tremendous conflict about this. If it was in one person you might call it schizophrenia".

Mr Halamish has a point. For Ma'ale Rehavam was among six outposts given demolition orders which Ms Sasson would say crisply in her 2005 report "can be evacuated effective today". It is now nearly three years since Ms Sasson's report complained that the failure to implement the orders sends a "clear message" that "that there are no real intentions to evacuate the settlers from illegal outposts. This is because the political level sends out double messages".

Mr Halamish remains hopeful that forcible evacuation won't happen, adding that "the Jewish people have a long tradition of not following rules going back thousands of years". Of the efforts by the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, to negotiate a voluntary evacuation of the outposts, Mr Halamish insists: "We have made it clear from day one that we would never be party to such an agreement." If it ever came to it, says Mr Halamish, "we would actively resist". Not by shooting soldiers or police, he makes clear, saying that while the settlers have weapons, that is not "relevant".

Instead Mr Halamish points to the forcible evacuation of just nine houses in the outpost of Amona in May 2006 which only succeeded after around 200 settlers, police, and soldiers were injured in clashes between baton-wielding security forces and some of the 4,000 – mainly young – protesting settlers from around the country who hurled bricks, rocks and paint at them. "In Gush Katif [the largest of the Gaza settlement blocs evacuated by troops on the orders of Mr Sharon in August 2005] we surrendered, we threw in the towel," says Mr Halamish. "In Amona, we were defeated. And after a defeat you can come back again."

You could get just a flavour of the settlers' determination "to come back again" by taking an hour's drive north to the tiny outpost north-west of Nablus – no more than a single, one-storey, house owned though not occupied by a Palestinian family – named by the Jewish teenagers from the neighbouring hardline and mainly religious settlements who took it over late last year, as Shvut Ami. Evicted, for the ninth time in recent months, they were back within minutes of police bulldozers piling mounds of earth against the house in the hope of keeping them out.

Jonathan Lieberman, 17, from the nearby settlement of Kedumim, said that his teacher and the principal of the local yeshiva where he studies, had given him permission to take the day off because "they know it's important". He added of the police efforts. "We want to drive them batty so they'll leave us alone. I believe that one day we'll build and they won't tear it down, just the way it was in other settlements. You keep on building, and in the end they give in."

This is a ritual struggle in miniature, of course. Shvut Ami is a trifle compared with outposts like Ma'ale Rehavam. Next month, Peace Now will go to the Supreme Court seeking the demolition instruction which the court judged unnecessary in 2006 because the state assured it evacuation was imminent. In response to another petition, the state has committed to removal of a seventh outpost, Migron, (which is built on privately owned Palestinian land) by August 2008, though the Defence Ministry asked to reserve the right to "request from the Supreme Court an extension on this date, if it deems necessary".

And Peace Now fears Migron could simply be removed to another West Bank location. No date has so far been set in respect of Ma'ale Rehavam and the five others listed with it, let alone the other 17 designated by Ms Sasson.

Last month Mr Olmert described the continued presence of the illegal outposts as a "disgrace". But his close cabinet ally Haim Ramon this month pointed to a lack of will among some in Mr Olmert's coalition to hasten the outposts' removal when he said the reason for the delay was "to be frank, internal political reasons".

The settlers still have friends in high places. Mr Ramon, a strong advocate of outpost removal by force if necessary, insisted he supported Mr Barak's efforts to reach a voluntary agreement to evacuate the outposts rather than forcible removal, but confessed to having doubts about whether they will succeed.

Either way, Israel's international and legal obligations are clear. When Ms Sasson recommended three years ago that the government take "urgent steps" to change this "reality" she summed up the history of outpost construction: "A continuing, bold, institutionalised law violation undermined the rule of law." And she added pointedly: "When law violations become standard behaviour it tends to spread into other areas."

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