Oranit, West Bank — The long-awaited deadline of Israel’s settlement moratorium came and went at midnight Monday. But in this settlement that hugs the Green Line about 12 miles east of Tel Aviv, there was no army of bulldozers to signal a new building wave — at least until Israelis come back from the Sukkot vacation this weekend.
Though the 10-month freeze on settlement activity is over, there’s still a chill in the air among settlers who say they still aren’t 100 percent sure that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t approve new restrictions.
In the north-central West Bank settlement of Kiryat Netafim, settler leaders on Sunday gathered in festive spirit to mark the end of the freeze, lay the cornerstone for a new day care center and vowed never again to pause in building.
But the day after, the building site was empty save for the patch of dried concrete with four rods protruding.
One hilltop away in the settlement of Barkan, a planned neighborhood of dozens of single-family villas (dubbed “the freezer” by some residents because it was affected by the moratorium) also lay fallow save for a lone construction crew.
Naftali Bennett, the director general of the umbrella settler group, the Yesha Council, predicted a “gradual ramp up” that would begin next week. In addition to the holiday, he said the sluggish start could be explained by the fact that that builders are still unsure about whether Netanyahu would eventually agree to a new moratorium that the U.S. and the Palestinians will continue pressing in the coming days.
“It’s like you’ve been choked and someone lets go of the stranglehold,” he said. “You feel relieved, but you don’t go out and celebrate.”
The Yesha Council had threatened an open break with Netanyahu if he decided to extend the moratorium, a move seen in the settlements as the harbinger for the dismantling of towns, similar to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank.
“We will do everything to ensure it will never happen again,” said Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, at a foundation ceremony. “We are here to return to Zionist activity … the mission of settling the entire Land of Israel. This mission cannot be stopped — not just for 10 months, not for 10 days, not 10 seconds. We are resuming this mission. We are resuming settling the land.”
The dozens of housing units that did break ground on Monday in communities throughout the settlements were but a fraction of some 2,000 already authorized by the government for construction.
Ten months ago, stop-work orders were issued on buildings going up in a new 350-plot development here in Oranit. But on Monday, Alon Geva woke up before sunrise to get a final building permit from the local authority. And as a lone bulldozer began digging up earth and rocks for the foundation of his new home, Geva was grinning. “The feeling is great. The tractor just took its first whack,” he said. “I bought this plot two weeks before the freeze, and then it landed on my head.”
Like the hopes of other home buyers building in the West Bank, Geva’s plan to build a three-bedroom house in time for his child to enter first grade at a local school was quashed by the freeze. Geva, a 41-year-old veterinarian, found himself in limbo with his life savings on the line, a new mortgage and a scramble to find a temporary solution for his first grader’s education.
Geva said he chose Oranit for its proximity to Tel Aviv and its cheap prices, not for ideological reasons touted by the mainstream settler movement. “This isn’t really a settlement,” he explained. “I have nothing in common with [more ideologically motivated settlers].”
Despite the end of the freeze, Geva said he is still jittery — caught between the fear of pressure for a new freeze and fear that settler vigilantes will provoke an uptick in international calls for a moratorium on building.
“I’m trapped in the middle,” he said. “I never imagined I would find myself in this situation.”
Though Geva is an exception, many settlers considered the freeze a betrayal.
“I feel like [the Likud Party] stole my vote,” said Nathalie Hershkovitz, a resident of the settlement of Barkan, where 20 housing units were held up.
Koby Kalabrino and his family of five were also trapped by the freeze. Plans for their four-bedroom home in a new neighborhood of Barkan were postponed by the moratorium. The family’s furniture sits in a shipping container on the overgrown lot where their new house will be built. The family lives in a mobile home next to Barkan’s public basketball court.
Kalabrino said that he hopes next week to break ground after getting the necessary permits.
“It’s a mixed feeling: we are happy, but also fearful that it won’t go so smoothly — that there will be more stop-work orders,” he said. “You see that the building in the territories wasn’t as large as expected.”
Despite Israel’s move to allow the freeze to lapse, settlers are concerned now about a quiet bureaucratic freeze, whereby Defense Minister Ehud Barak buries new projects in red tape. A former spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that if there’s a political directive to quash building, ample bureaucratic mechanisms can be used to stymie new projects.
The Yesha Council’s Bennett said in the coming days that the umbrella group is expected to get approvals for housing projects in the major settlement cities like Ariel, Maaleh Adumim, Efrat and Karnei Shomrom.
“It’s unacceptable that in the major cities in Judea and Samaria we can’t build.”