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August 26, 2008

Israel's Outposts Seal Death of Palestinian State


by Jonathan Cook

Yehudit Genud hardly feels she is on the frontier of Israel's settlement project, although the huddle of mobile homes on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop she calls home is controversial even by Israeli standards.

Despite the size and isolation of Migron, a settlement of about 45 religious families on a ridge next to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Mrs. Genud's job as a social worker in West Jerusalem is a 25-minute drive away on a well-paved road.

Mrs. Genud, 28, pregnant with her first child, points out that Migron has parks, children's playgrounds, a kindergarten, a daycare center, and a synagogue, all paid for by the government – even if the buildings are enclosed by a razor-wire fence, and her husband, Roni, has to put in overtime as the settlement's security guard.

From her trailer, she also has panoramic views not only of Ramallah but of the many communities hugging the slopes that gently fall away to the Jordan Valley.

Long-established Palestinian villages are instantly identifiable by their homes' flat roofs and the prominence of the tall minarets of the local mosques. Interspersed among them, however, are a growing number of much newer, fortified communities of luxury villas topped by distinctive red-tiled roofs.

These are the Jewish settlements that now form an almost complete ring around Palestinian East Jerusalem, cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank and destroying any hope that the city will one day become the capital of a Palestinian state.

"These settlements are supposed to be the nail in the coffin of any future peace agreement with the Palestinians," said Dror Etkes, a veteran observer of the settlements who works for the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. "Their purpose is to make a Palestinian state unviable."

The majority of the half a million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to Mr. Etkes, are "economic opportunists," drawn to life in the occupied territories less by ideological or religious convictions than by economic incentives. The homes, municipal services, and schools there are heavily subsidized by the government.

In addition, the settlements – though illegal under international law – are integrated into Israel through a sophisticated system of roads that make it easy for the settlers to forget they are in occupied territory surrounded by Palestinians.

But Migron, with its supposed links to the Biblical site where King Saul based himself during his fight against the Philistines, attracts a different kind of inhabitant.

"This place is holy to the Jewish people, and we have a duty to be here," Mrs. Genud said. "The whole land of Israel belongs to us, and we should not be afraid to live wherever we want to. The Arabs must accept that."

Unlike the 150 or so official settlements dotted across the West Bank, Migron is an example of what the Israeli government refers to as an "illegal outpost," often an unauthorized outgrowth from one of the main settlements. Today there are more than 100 such outposts, housing several thousand extremist settlers.

Mrs. Genud, however, argues that Israel's refusal to turn Migron into an authorized settlement, as it has done with many other established outposts, reflects pressure from Washington.

Back in 2003, Israel committed itself to dismantling the more recent outposts under the terms of the Road Map, a U.S.-sponsored plan for reviving the peace process and creating a Palestinian state. Two years later the cabinet approved the removal of 24 outposts, although barely any progress has been made on dismantling them. Israel confirmed its pledge again in January when George W. Bush, the U.S. president, visited.

Established six years ago by a group from the nearby settlement of Ofra, Migron is now the largest of the outposts. Two residents – Itai Halevi, the community's rabbi, and Itai Harel, the son of Israel Harel, a well-known settler leader – have demonstrated their confidence in Migron's future by each building permanent homes.

"We are connected to the water grid, we have phone lines from the national company Bezeq, we have been hooked up by the electricity company and have street lighting," Mrs. Genud said. "We also have a kindergarten paid for by the state and a group of soldiers stationed here to protect us. How can we be 'illegal'?"

Daniella Wiess, a leader of the most extreme wing of the settlers, agreed. Like the inhabitants of Migron, she said the outpost was first suggested by Ariel Sharon when he was housing minister in the 1990s. It was also among the first outposts to be set up after he became prime minister in 2002.

An official report published in 2005 found that more than $4 million was invested in Migron in its first years, with the money channeled through at least six different ministries.

There is good reason for official complicity in such outposts as Migron. "This place is very strategic," Mrs. Genud said. It looks down on Route 60, once the main road serving Palestinians between Jerusalem and Jenin in the northern West Bank.

Today, even those Palestinians who can get a permit to travel the road find regular sections obstructed by checkpoints or closed for the protection of neighboring settlements.

"We can also see all the Arabs from here and keep an eye on what they are doing," she said, referring to her Palestinian neighbors. "And in addition, we can see the other settlements and check on their safety."

But despite its significance to the settlement drive, Migron is under threat. Last week, the Israeli government agreed that the outpost must be destroyed, although it was tight-lipped about when. Few are expecting such a reversal to happen soon. The government's decision was largely foisted upon it by a series of unforeseen events.

In 2006, several West Bank Palestinians, backed by Israeli peace groups, petitioned Israel's supreme court, claiming that Migron had been built on their private land.

Over the past four decades, Israel has declared nearly two-thirds of the West Bank as "state land," seizing it on a variety of pretexts and transferring much of it to the jurisdiction of settler councils. According to the figures of the Israeli group Peace Now, the settlers are in direct control of more than 40 percent of the West Bank.

Land belonging to Palestinians who hold the title deeds, however, has been harder to confiscate. As a result, a dubious industry of front companies both inside Israel and in the occupied territories has been spawned to transfer private Palestinian land to the settlers.

One such company appears to be behind the sale of the land on which Migron was built. A police investigation has revealed that one of the Palestinian owners, Abdel Latif Hassan Sumarin, signed over his power of attorney to an Israeli real estate company in 2004, even though he died in the United States in 1961.

During the court hearings, Israel has been dragging its feet. According to its own figures, there are a dozen outposts built entirely or partially on private Palestinian land – and the true number may be higher still.

The settlers believe that the decision to destroy Migron, if carried out, would set a dangerous precedent. "They are very afraid that this will become simply the first of many settlements to fall," Mr. Etkes said.

Last week, faced with another hearing before the court, the government finally conceded on Migron – but only after striking a deal with the main settlement lobby group, the Yesha council. Israel promised that the outpost would go, but not before new homes had been built for Migron's settlers and they had been relocated en masse to a newly created – and authorized– settlement. According to reports in the local media, Migron's families may be moved only a few hundred meters from their current location to an area of the West Bank designated as "state land."

"The settlers know that preparation of an alternative site could take years," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of Peace Now, fearful that this was simply a delaying tactic.

Others believe that relocating Migron may, in fact, set back the struggle against the settlements. There is already talk of moving the settlers to the jurisdiction of a neighboring settlement, Adam.

"The danger is that Migron will be destroyed only to be resurrected in 'legalized' form by the government as a new settlement close by Adam," Mr. Etkes said.

Such a suspicion is confirmed by the main settler council, Yesha, which issued a statement last week: "We believe it is possible to find a solution for the outposts that will strengthen the settlements."

Nonetheless, the residents of Migron, backed by hard-line settler groups, are talking and acting tough for the time being. In a show of defiance, they moved another mobile home into the outpost last week. For several months the residents have also been erecting a large stone building close by the outpost that will become a winery.

The settlers' rabbinical council denounced the threatened loss of the outpost, as did settler leader Gershon Masika, who warned of a bloody confrontation to save it.

Mrs. Genud is not sure what she will do if the crunch comes and she has to give up her home and life in Migron. "All of this land is Jewish," she said. "It would be a big mistake if we give up what is rightfully ours."

This article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.

 

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  • Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His most recent book, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations: Iraq, Iran, and the Plan to Remake the Middle East, is published by Pluto Press. Visit his Web site.

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