January 8, 2004
Settlers Struggle to Hold Biblical Israel
A battered shipping container was Itai Harel's first home on this steep, windswept hilltop.
Now he lives in a trailer with running water and electricity, and land has been leveled for more permanent housing in this illegal settlement outpost. He and his fellow young settlers are gearing up to fight for their new hilltop home.
Migron, the largest and most established of the 100 or so illegal Jewish outposts set up across the West Bank, is on the front lines of a looming showdown between the settler movement and the Israeli government. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently pledged to dismantle such settlements in accordance with the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan.
On Dec. 28, Israel ordered the removal of four of the outposts. The settlers can now petition against the action through the courts.
But settler rabbis called upon supporters to physically prevent the settlements' dismantlement, and called upon army officers not to order their soldiers to dismantle the settlements.
Harel expressed similar sentiments.
"We are staying here. It's our home," said Harel, 29, vowing to return if the government somehow manages to remove them.
"It is our right to be here; this is our national home," he said, sweeping his hand toward the view of Arab villages and Jewish settlements on nearby hillsides.
However, the settlers' position may have been undercut by the National Religious Party (NRP), the main settler political body.
The NRP's chairman, Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam, said Dec. 29 that the NRP would support the removal of four unauthorized outposts if no way could be found to authorize them.
The NRP "is part of the government, part of the rule of law in the State of Israel. If, in the end, after every avenue has been pursued, these outposts cannot be authorized, then we will not be able to support anything that is not legal," Eitam told Israel's Army Radio.
Over the past two years, 42 families have moved to Migron. They are young, defiant and fiercely ideological. Casting themselves as part of a continuum of ancient and modern Jewish history, they view their unauthorized building of an outpost about 20 minutes drive north of Jerusalem as key to strengthening the Jewish claim to biblical Israel. They also see it as similar to efforts by early Zionists to create "facts on the ground" in what became Israel proper.
Critics and the U.S. government see the outposts, built hastily and without government approval, as yet another obstacle to peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Harel and his friends at Migron, which is named after a biblical-era settlement in the region, are hesitant to say exactly how they would resist soldiers should they attempt an evacuation.
Pinchas Wallerstein, who heads the local settlement region of the West Bank, called Binyamin, said he hopes the Israeli courts will help prevent an evacuation order.
If that fails, he said he foresees thousands of supporters coming to Migron to help thwart police and army forces.
"If we have 7,000 to 10,000 people here it will not be possible to evacuate us," Wallerstein said, addressing a wedding party from Houston that had come to see Migron as part of a tour of West Bank Jewish settlements. "Why is it legitimate to evacuate Jewish settlements but we cannot withdraw [Arab villages?]" he asked, calling any evacuation a reward for terrorism.
Before climbing back on their bus, the visiting Americans posed for pictures with Wallerstein, who has temporarily moved the Binyamina headquarters to Migron to head the campaign against its possible removal.
In a show of solidarity, Israel's well-organized settler movement has helped facilitate visits by thousands of people to Migron in recent weeks.
Jerry Silverman, one of the wedding party members, said he hoped the issue would be resolved through negotiations.
"The American government is not in charge of Israel," he said.
Sharon, long a patron of the settler movement, is under intense pressure from the U.S. administration to fulfill Israel's obligations under the road map, beginning with the dismantling of illegal outposts that have cropped up over the last several years. Many were established in the immediate aftermath of Arab terrorist attacks on local settlers.
In a speech earlier this month, Sharon said some settlements would have to be evacuated if Israel disengages physically from the Palestinians.
The first Israeli presence on the hill where Migron stands today were cell phone towers built by local phone companies four years ago. Young settlers followed about two years later.
The Israeli government said it expects to begin evacuating settlement outposts in the next few weeks. Officials hope settlers will leave without a fight.
"If the outposts are illegal, then they will be dealt with -- hopefully with persuasion, but otherwise with force," said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Sharon.
"Hopefully that won't be necessary," he added quickly.
The four outposts slated for quick removal reportedly are Ginot Aryeh, near Ofra; Hazon David, near Kiryat Arba; Bat Ayin Ma'arav, in Gush Etzion; and Havat Shaked, near Yitzhar.
Only one of the outposts -- Ginot Aryeh -- is inhabited, with about 10 families living there as well as a few single people.
Unlike most other outposts, Migron is more than a small collection of tents and trailers. There is a paved circular road and two buildings with stone facades, one that serves as a synagogue, the other a nursery school.
Still, amenities are basic.
Next to the community's row of portable toilets is a large white plastic tent for meetings and celebrations. Trailers are clustered in muddy patches of land. A private security guard in a fleece jacket and armed with an Uzi machine gun mans the entrance. A fence topped with rings of barbed wire surrounds the outpost.
"It's clear it is worth the price. We are here to live a quality life, to live an ideal," Harel said.
Peace activists say that ideal is misguided and dangerous. It also does not represent the views of most Israelis, who according to polls, are willing to withdraw from most West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements in the event of an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.
As long as settlement building continues, "we will be doomed to more and more international condemnation, economic recession and violence," said Dror Etkes, who coordinates Peace Now's Settlement Watch Project. "Another settlement is another rock in the occupation and oppression [of the Palestinians]."
Etkes said he saw Sharon's recent policy speech as a potential turning point since the Israeli government has yet to dismantle any settlements of significant size.
"If the settlements are uprooted then the first inroads will be made," he said. "Migron could be the first uprooted and this will be a historic event."
Shlomo and Hagit Ha'Cohen, both 25, see Migron's place in history differently.
They say they are living Jewish history in their decision to live and establish a family in Migron. Hagit, who teaches history and civics at a Jerusalem high school, is expecting the couple's first child in January.
"We see this as our home forever, even if there are problems along the way," said her husband, a yeshiva student who plans to study civil engineering. "With all due respect to the Americans, at the end of the day we are the ones who decide."
Sitting in their bookshelf-lined three-room trailer, for which they pay $70 a month rent, Shlomo cites the story of Chanukah and the conflict between the ancient Greeks and the Israelites.
"Many imperial powers have told us what to do throughout history. They no longer exist. Israel is still here," he said. "Our path is clear, we know where we want to go."