As a retired administrative assistant, Joyce Hawtof doesn’t have a lot of money to invest.
But this week, she was considering paying into a fund with other pro-Israel activists to buy a $28,000 mobile home for a West Bank outpost.
“I think it’s the right thing to do to help our brothers and sisters,” said Hawtof Tuesday in a phone call from Shdema, one of the stops on a three-day tour of east Jerusalem and West Bank communities intended to draw American money.
The trip was led by Brooklyn state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has made international junkets in support of right-wing Israeli politics as much a part of his public portfolio as voting on New York legislation.
The trip came at the same time an expansion of the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo on Tuesday sparked fresh tension with the White House over continued settlement activity.
“At a time when we are working to re-launch negotiations, these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Hikind said 50 people had joined him on a fact-finding tour of West Bank coummunities, some well-established and others struggling, in hopes of gaining investment in the land as a “clear message” against the Obama administration’s call for Israel to freeze all settlement activity.
“I don’t think I would do this alone,” said Hawtof, who lives in Borough Park. “But if a couple of people pitch in, maybe if you have a CD due you can put it right in there.” She said she was not considering one of the $110,000, two-bedroom homes she had seen, but “The least expensive idea is to find a couple of partners and sponsor a caravan.”
Caravan is the term popularly used by Israelis to describe temporary homes that have become the hallmark of outposts, often without running water or electricity, which settlers claim to prevent the land from falling into Palestinian hands. There are about 50 such outposts, about half of which are to be dismantled by the Israeli government.
In the cooperative she is considering, Hawtof said, the group would charge an Israeli family a modest rent for the home that would go into a fund to buy additional caravans.
Hawtof acknowledges that her investment could be lost if the caravan is destroyed or confiscated by the Israeli army, or rendered futile if the unit is moved inside the Green Line. “It is a concern,” she said. “But you have to do what is right. You can’t predict the outcome of anything.”
Joseph Stamm, a Flatbush resident, says he and his wife, Anne, are scouting property in east Jerusalem.
“It’s been a lifelong dream,” says Stamm, who owns a company that reviews medical claims for government agencies and visits Israel often. “It’s our right to own land in our country. Such actions make a statement to our government as well as our friends and neighbors.”
Hikind said he and his wife, Shani, who is director of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, are also considering a home in an east Jerusalem community, Nof Zion, where luxury condominiums geared toward American buyers are being built.
“We have to see if we can afford it,” said Hikind. On Wednesday the group was to attend a ceremony to lay the cornerstone for a new construction project there. Other stops included Ariel and Amona
Of the potential risk of investing in these communities, Hikind said “Everyone is an adult and makes their own decisions. We feel investing in the land of Israel is always a good idea.”
A spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, Ori Nir, said Hikind’s avowed goal of sending a message that Jews will not give up any part of Judea and Samaria was “regrettable” at a time when peace talks are stagnating.
“Compromise in the future necessitates compromise on settlements,” said Nir. “By trying to organize this initiative he is aiming directly at the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Last month, the Arab League called on the Obama administration to prevent Americans from spending money on Jewish building in east Jerusalem, citing a fund by Florida businessman Irving Moskowitz that aids construction projects.
After coming down hard on Israel over the settlements issue early on, the Obama administration has been viewed lately as softening that stance, praising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month for a partial commitment to halting settlement construction. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu’s move “unprecedented,” prompting criticism from the Arab world that Obama was backing down from a total freeze.
But in his statement against the Jerusalem Planning Commission’s approval of Gilo’s expansion, Gibbs said “The U.S. also objects to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. Our position is clear: the status of Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the parties.”
Hikind said Tuesday that two Knesset members of Netanyahu’s Likud party were supporting his mission. One, Tzippi Hotovely, had met with the group, and another Danny Danon, was to accompany him to Nof Zion.
“They are totally supportive of what we are doing,” said Hikind. “But as far as the Obama administration, from their point of view everything is provocative. Building a toilet [on the West Bank] is provocative.”
After meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem this week, Rep. Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat, said the prime minister was confident of a new accord with the White House.
“The prime minister clearly said that the administration now understands that [Israelis] are willing to move ahead, but that Palestinians are not,” said Israel, who was part of a delegation with Democrat Ike Skelton of Missouri and Republican Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania. “As a result of their meeting [in Washington this month] I think [the president] supports the view that everything is negotiable without preconditions, rather than adopting the Palestinian view that you can only negotiate with preconditions.”
Members of the House Appropriations Committee, the trio went to Israel to discuss the Iran nuclear threat with top defense leaders there.
“We can have differences over settlements, but the strategic cooperation is stronger than ever,” said Israel.