Ma’aleh Adumim, West Bank — Looking eastward to the Judean Desert’s moonscape, the hillside across the highway from this sprawling settlement looks more like a teen campground than a settler outpost.
Situated on a hillside next to an access road leading to a nearly completed police station, there are no mobile phone antennas, water towers or mobile containers that are the signposts of a decade-long effort by religious nationalists to tighten their hold on the West Bank. A sign reading “home sweet home” leans on a small rectangular stone wall, and the hand full of boys who have camped out promise that two families are waiting to move to this location.
This would-be outpost seems like the Chanukah gimmick of the far-right settler group “The Land of Israel Faithful,” which established several other holiday encampments in a bid to provoke the government. But the dozens of outposts pose a real dilemma for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is committed to evacuating about 25 under the renewed peace process: does he dismantle the outposts and antagonize the right or should he drag his feet and risk alienating Palestinian negotiating partners and the U.S.
The would-be outpost its located in the sensitive “E1” land tract: territory Israel wants to link Jerusalem eastward to Ma’aleh Adumim but the Palestinians say is a necessary link between cities in the northern and southern West Bank.
Ezra, a 21-year-old yeshiva student, said he allowed the police on Sunday to bring him back to Ma’aleh Adumim without a fight. After stopping home to charge his cell phone, he was back Monday morning.
He explained the resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians has inspired the dozen or so youths to set up an encampment in E1. For him, peace talks mean turning over this tract to the Palestinians — something that would place Ma’aleh Adumim and Jerusalem under the threat of rocket attack.
“The idea is to create Jewish contiguity,” said Ezra, who says he “fought” in the Gaza settlements against the 2005 evacuation. “We decided after Annapolis that it would hurt Ma’aleh Adumim.”
If Olmert tries to evacuate encampments like the one in E1, “he will have a surprise.”
On Tuesday, in an effort to get control over dozens of unauthorized settlement outposts erected over the last decade, a committee of cabinet ministers on the outposts met to discuss a set of Justice Ministry guidelines for building in the West Bank.
“For any building in Judea and Samaria that has political significance, the guidelines will demand a political decision,” said Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who heads the committee, in an interview with Channel 1.
Settlers leaders complain that the proposal — which makes all new building in the West Bank subject to a cabinet decision — handcuffs established settlements from expanding because it treats building in the tiny outposts and large communities the same.
But a legal expert warned that the Justice Ministry proposal contains loopholes that would essentially give settler councils the authority to build at will.
In response to the proposal, Talia Sasson, a former state attorney who authored a highly critical report on the outposts for the government in 2005, said the proposal before the ministers amounts to a breach of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s promise to George W. Bush to remove all of the unauthorized hilltop outposts erected since March 2001.
“The proposal lays down a set of procedures whereby the government will relinquish all of its control and oversight on Israeli construction in the West Bank,” wrote Sasson in a response to the proposal sent to cabinet ministers and the Justice Ministry.
“The proposal, if accepted, would constitute a clear and unequivocal violation commitment of Israel’s prime minister to the president of the United States regarding the illegal outposts in the West Bank and expansion of existing settlements.”
According to the draft proposal, any decision on the establishment of new settlements or expansion of existing ones should require prior approval by the cabinet. But the proposal also lays out several conditions under which new building can proceed without a cabinet decision: if new building plans are “reasonable” or at “the edge” of existing settlements, or if they are contained in an existing master plan for a settlement.
Sasson believes that those loopholes will be exploited to enable settlement expansion to continue as the rule rather than the exception.
In addition to the outpost dilemma, the expansion of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa drew criticism this week from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as undermining confidence in the peace process. That’s because Har Homa is erected on land Palestinians say belonged to villagers near Bethlehem. As peace talks kicked off this week, Palestinian spokesmen said the continued settlement activity makes them look like they are blind to facts on the ground that will make a Palestinian state impossible.
“There is no change in Israeli activity,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian cabinet minister. “There is the same rate of work. Har Homa has received a lot of media attention, but there are a lot of other things happening. That is embarrassing for the Palestinian leadership.”
Akiva Eldar, a veteran political commentator for the left-wing Haaretz and co-author of a history of the settlements, “Lords of the Land,” speculated that vagueness on the outposts is part of an effort by Olmert and Ramon to curry favor with both the left wing and right wing.
Otniel Schneller, a lawmaker from Olmert’s Kadima Party and a settler, refused to comment on the draft proposal, but said that the government needs to engage the settlers in talks if it wants to get approval for a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
“The problem is how the state relates to communities in Judea in Samaria,” Schneller said. “One needs to remember, without the Israeli right, I don’t see any possibility to an accord with the Palestinians.”
But Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel said that he was not happy about the Chanukah outpost activity.
“There’s no point to force Ma’aleh Adumim into unnecessary fights,” he said. “Ma’aleh Adumim is part of the public consensus. All of the extremists who are coming here are hurting us.” He singled out Daniella Weiss, a mayor of the settlement of Kedumim and one of the leaders of the Chanukah outpost operation.
But back at the would-be outpost, 21-year-old Ezra, and a group of boys are studying Talmudic interpretations of the command to allow the poor to harvest 10 percent of one’s fields for themselves.
He insists that he is not an extremist, because he still believes in the army and government institutions. He has defied military and police orders because the security chiefs don’t do enough to protect his home in Ma’aleh Adumim and other settlements from the Palestinians.
“They are attacking our people and Israel isn’t doing enough to stop it,” he said. According to his reading of history, the slopes outside of Ma’aleh Adumim are unclaimed no man’s land.
But will he obey military orders that the area is a closed zone? “There is one law,” he responded, “and that’s the Torah that says we have to settle the land of Israel.”
Only by creating facts on the ground in the West Bank can Israel defend itself, he argued. A permanent presence in E1, would go a long way to blocking a deal to give the land back to the Palestinians.
“[Israel is] not going to compromise if there is — I don’t want to say it — a fight,” Ezra said. “If [the government] was cruel enough to evacuate people from their homes, then they can also bring the Palestinians here.”