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The report of an illegal outpost on Palestinian land is already a dog-bites-man type of story, but the tale of Tal Menashe and Heinanit has all the makings of a man-bites-dog tale.

Tal Menashe is an illegal outpost that has taken over a more veteran Jewish settlement, Heinanit, on the other side of the Green Line. The settlers of Heinanit have hired none other than attorney Michael Sfard, who works for the leftist organizations Peace Now and Yesh Din and is despised by the Yesha council of settlements, to represent them. Last week, Sfard approached the attorney general, the Interior Ministry and the Shomron Regional Council, to demand that the local government at Heinanit not be allowed to fall into the hands of the neighboring outpost.

The storm broke out three weeks ago, following local elections in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Deputy attorney general Malchiel Balas had directed the residents of three illegal outposts, Tal Menashe, Shvut Rachel and Nofei Prat, to vote in their neighboring settlements. In the case of Heinanit, the decision was problematic. Heinanit is a mainly secular settlement of immigrants from the Caucasus numbering 64 families, with another 24 families in an absorption center. Tal Menashe, on the other hand, is mainly Ashkenazi and national religious, and strongly supported by the Yesha council and its settlement movement, Amana.

Another irony of the story is that Tal Menashe owes its takeover of Heinanit in large part to attorney Talia Sasson, who wrote a report describing the extent of illegal outposts in the West Bank. Responding to a High Court petition by a group of settlements and outposts, among them Heinanit and Tal Menashe, to be considered as separated voting districts, the state cited Sasson's report as a reason not to allow outposts to continue being recognized as separate voting districts. When the settlement leadership saw that the High Court was not going to grant their petition, they withdrew it.

However, Heinanit refused to register the residents of Tal Menashe as their own. Sfard argues that although the Tal Menashe residents registered to vote in Heinanit through the Shomron Regional Council - which is against the law - the deputy attorney general nevertheless allowed them to vote. He also protested that the polling station was moved to the edge of Heinanit, which made it difficult for the immigrants from the absorption center, most of whom do not have cars, to get there.

The party led by members of Tal Menashe, which joined a small opposition group in Heinanit, won the elections to the local governing committee, 204 to 153. A member of this faction also won representation on the regional council by a vote of 198 to 157.

The political significance of the outcome is that the representatives of the outpost, delegates of a national-religious group of law-breakers, now constitute a majority in the government of the settlement and have a representative sitting on the regional council. The social significance is that the religious trespassers can pass decisions, control resources and dictate their desired lifestyle to the secular founders of Heinanit.

Ronen Ashorov, who has lived at Heinanit for the past 11 years, is worried about what is in store. "If they continue to control the committee, sooner or later we'll have to leave," he said. "I don't see any chance of coexistence between two such difference communities."

"This is not only forcing a totally different lifestyle on the residents of the settlement, but also a mortal blow to the struggle against the outposts, which are institutionalized and organized criminality that challenges the legitimacy of the government of Israel to make political decisions," Sfard wrote to the authorities.

Tal Menashe has all the hallmarks of an outpost that flourished with the blessing of the authorities, but what is unusual is that Gush Emunim and its collaborators in the establishment chose to drive a stake into Heinanit with its population of "quality of life" settlers.

"The trouble started in 1992 after Likud lost the elections," said Haim, who did not give his real name out of concern for his livelihood and is a veteran settler at Heinanit. "The head of the regional council pressured and even threatened us to allow caravans to be placed in the upper part of the settlement near industrial structures. The settlement department of the [World] Zionist Organization also pressured us to allow them to settle next to us. Everybody said it was temporary. They started with six or seven caravans and soon there were 40."

Haim adds that caravans would be brought to the site in the middle of the night under the nose of a reservist on duty there, whom he says had connections to the Shomron Regional Council. "Because we were afraid to be ostracized as being against Zionism and settlement, we couldn't fight it, and so temporary became permanent," said Haim.

Haim said that the settlers of the outpost then took over the eastern part of Heinanit and built there, ostensibly legally, calling the outpost "Heinanit B" when discussing it with the national government, but Tal Menashe in terms of the Shomron Regional Council and the Yesha council. "I really hope the attorney general will reconsider his decision and release us from this forced unification," Haim said.