The Sheriff

Avri Ran has a farm and Jewish followers in the West Bank. But for his Arab neighbors, it's a rule by force.

Aviv Lavie
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Aviv Lavie

The admiration shown for Avri Ran by the Jewish residents of hilltops in Samaria is matched only by the fear and loathing he arouses among the Palestinian neighbors there and the peace activists who are working with them. All of them agree that the kibbutznik who got religion and set up a farm on the easternmost hill of the territory encompassed by the master plan for the West Bank settlement of Itamar is no ordinary person. "The founder of the narrative of the outposts," is the definition offered this week by an activist in the Yesha Council of Jewish settlements. "With his body and by his way of life he is realizing the triple connection: man, land, God." According to the ultranationalist activist and failed Knesset candidate Baruch Marzel, "He is a very serious Jew, and unlike other leaders, he says little and does a great deal."

"He thinks he is a sheriff but he behaves like a terrorist," is the opinion of Abdul Latif Bani Jaber, the head of the council in Yanun, the Palestinian village whose bad luck it is to be located in the valley below Ran's farm. Last October, when the harassment of the village by Ran and his people became intolerable, the residents abandoned their homes, leaving behind only two aged people who refused to accept the decision to go. Some of the villagers have since returned, but the fear in their eyes when they talk about "Avri" is obvious.

David Nir is one person who won't forget Avri Ran. Nir, from Tel Aviv, who has a doctoral degree in physics and is a high-tech entrepreneur, is active in Ta'ayush, an Arab-Jewish partnership. He arrived in Yanun on February 1 to join others in the organization who were assisting the villagers in the face of the harassment by the settlers - "the boys from Avri's farm," as the residents of the area call them. In Yanun, Nir met two peace activists from the International Solidarity Movement, Satoshi Itacura from Japan, and Colin Kelsall from England. They told him that two days earlier they had encountered two settlers on the hill above, who at gunpoint had forced them to strip down to their underclothing, forced them to lie on rocks in the mud and rain, only releasing them some hours later. When they returned to the village, Itacura suddenly realized that he had left an expensive camera back on the hill.

Nir suggested that they go back to look for the camera. The peace activists and their Palestinian hosts warned him about the settlers: Anyone who approached the fence around Ran's farm was taking his life in his hands. Nir decided to coordinate the search with the army, which sent a jeep with five soldiers on the mission. Nir and the soldiers climbed up the hill, and within minutes Avri Ran appeared, accompanied by one of his employees, Yissachar Bander, the two of them armed with M-16 rifles.

They wasted no time. As the soldiers watched, the two began to chase Nir. He heard the company commander shouting into his radio, "This is the last time I'm going to take a mission like this, I'm not willing to get involved." Nir tried to take refuge behind one of the soldiers, but Ran was faster. The pursuit ended in an encounter between Ran's rifle barrel and Nir's face.

The medical report describes dryly a "deep cut from the bridge of the nose on the left down to the left upper lip, and swelling in a lateral area to the left nostril." Nir was taken to Ichilov Hospital, where he had stitches under local anesthetic, though not before he filed a complaint at the police station in the West Bank city of Ariel. To his surprise, the police investigation concluded quickly. Ran was indicted on two counts: "wounding in aggravated circumstances" and aggravated assault. The trial opened in Magistrate's Court in Kfar Sava on March 21; the next hearing is set for the beginning of June.

Eggs and holy places

The title "sheriff" fits Ran very well. The chain of hills east of Itamar is where the orderly occupation ends and the wild West Bank begins, or perhaps the wild east of the Land of Israel. The army and the police rarely show a presence here, letting the residents of the hilltop outposts and the villagers in the valley work things out between them - which they do, in the best tradition of Wild West law. The area has known very few moments of quiet since Ran established his farm.

Long before he became the sheriff of the hills around Itamar, Avri Ran was a boy on Kibbutz Nahsholim. He grew up and attended school there until a year before his army service, when he left together with his mother and his brother, who later joined the Shin Bet security service. People on the kibbutz remember a delightful, handsome boy who was a favorite with the girls. Since he left, there has been almost no contact with him. He served as a company commander in the Armored Corps (he is now a retired lieutenant colonel), afterward living in a small apartment in Tel Aviv close to the old basketball arena of Maccabi Tel Aviv. He made a living from a factory that made sandals and leather shoes in the Ramat Gan area.

After Ran and his wife, Sharona, from Moshav Neve Yerek, became ultra-Orthodox, they decided to make a dramatic change in their way of life. Shortly before the signing of the Oslo accord, in September, 1993, they moved to Itamar, which lies close to Nablus. At first they lived on the settlement itself, building a large organic chicken coop. There was nothing unusual about this. Quite a few former kibbutzniks who turned religious live in Itamar or on other settlements in the area, and some of them have chosen an agricultural way of life and specialize in organic farming.

To strengthen the ties with the land, and at the same time draw closer to God, Ran and his wife decided to move to the top of one of the high hills east of the settlement. Their vision corresponded with the expansionist ambitions of Itamar. Under the Olso agreement, Itamar, like other settlements around Nablus, became a candidate for abandonment in the first wave of evacuations. Itamar decided to fight this possibility by creating facts on the ground: The idea was to establish a series of sites toward the east, in the hope of one day connecting with the settlements in the Jordan Rift Valley, which the Israeli government had determined would not be evacuated even in a final treaty.

Thus, in a series of moves in the second half of the 1990s, under both Labor and Likud governments, Itamar annexed one hill after another, creating a narrow rectangle of about five kilometers toward the east, which gave the settlement a total area of some 6,000 dunams (1,500 acres) according to the master plan that was officially approved in November, 1999. There are a few hundred families in Itamar. By comparison, the city of Bat Yam, with a population of 150,000, has an area of 8,000 dunams.

In short order it turned out that these hills are a holy site for Judaism. One of the local residents, a member of the Bratslav Hasidim community, had a dream that the judge Gideon Ben Yehoash was buried on one of the hills. Immediately a gravesite was established there. Today the tomb is a site of pilgrimage - some of the visitors light candles - and it even appears on some maps. The biblical judge also gave the series of outposts their name: Gideonim Aleph, Bet Gimmel. The fourth outpost, which is 4.5 kilometers from the settlement itself, is called "Gvaot Olam" ("hills of the universe"), and with good reason: It boats a breathtaking view of the Rift Valley and the Dead Sea. It was the local boss, Avri Ran, who came up with the dramatic name.

The hilltop farm, which began to be built in 1998, provides the Rans with a good living. In addition to the organic eggs, they produce cheese from sheep's milk, which is sold at natural goods stores, especially in Jerusalem, under the logo "Gvaot Olam." There are also quite a few horses and dogs on the farm. Visitors to Itamar's Website can get a comprehensive explanation of the advantages of organic eggs, and regular delivery is promised to those who are interested. "The eggs are collected daily by Jewish, Shabbat- observant labor," the site states.

Guru with paychecks

The Rans, who are aged about 50, are not alone on their farm. They have ten children, most of whom, including some of the married daughters, live with them. One of the daughters, Sarah, is married to Neriya, the son of Gabi and Bracha Ben Yitzhak, who have been living for many years in a caravan at Tel Rumeida, in Hebron, and are considered part of the settler aristocracy. To accommodate the many residents, a series of structures was established at the farm, including a synagogue. An agreement that was signed at the time between the Yesha Council and the Labor government of Ehud Barak categorized Gvaot Olam as a "frozen" settlement, but that did not stop it from developing rapidly. In October, 1999 there were ten structures at the site; last August there were 15.

In addition to the family members, the farm is also home to "the boys." This group of youngsters, some of them permanent residents, some who come and go, work on the farm, though their main motivation for being there is that they view Ran as a role model, a spiritual mentor. Young people, some of whom have been dubbed the "hilltop youth," come to the farm from all parts of the country.

A resident of Itamar explains the source of the attraction: "He impresses everyone because of his authenticity, because he is true, and he is also a superb farmer who makes a very respectable living from his land and doesn't get a red cent from any establishment. He relies only on himself and on his people. He is very fanatic.

"All kinds of weird, detached types also come to him, guys who have been thrown out of all kinds of places and find in him a refuge from the establishment and from their parents, and are looking for a spiritual shepherd. When they come to him they do what he says."

Ran has "the dimensions of a mythic figure in the hills," says a person who follows the activities of Ran and his admirers. "It's a bit like an ashram there and he is their guru."

Baruch Marzel describes the relations between Ran and his cohorts in terms of a social mission: "He is the daddy of the hilltop people; he looks after them and takes care of them. He is very hospitable, he has a big heart. He appeals to people who have no home, drawing them close and strengthening them."

One of the youngsters who came to Gvaot Olam to work was Gur Hammel, from Sa'ad, a religious kibbutz. In October, 1998, Hammel visited his sister, Kama, at Itamar and then set out on foot, knapsack on his back, to Avri Ran's farm. On the way, he encountered a 77-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed Suleiman a-Zalmut, from the nearby village of Beir Fouriq. For reasons that are unclear, Hammel smashed Zalmut's skull with a rock. That night the Itamar secretariat issued an information page to the settlers: "We roundly condemn the criminal act." The secretariat emphasized that the perpetrator "is not one of us."Hammel was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in May, 2000.