Wall-eyed at Har Homa

A single thread connects the motivation to build Har Homa and the motivation to build many Jewish settlements throughout the territories: to break, at any price, the territorial contiguity in which Palestinians are concentrated.

Daniel Ben Simon
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Daniel Ben Simon

Despite the situation, work continues without stopping at Har Homa. Thousands of construction workers, imported from a variety of countries, are working around the clock to complete the new neighborhood of Jerusalem that is located on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Years ago, when the heavy machinery first came to the rocky site, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were walking a path of peace. The Jews continued to build unobstructed and the Palestinians continued to restrain themselves despite the fact that the land upon which the neighborhood is built had been confiscated from them.

After the outbreak of the second intifada the atmosphere chilled and the thousands of Palestinian builders found themselves on the wrong side of the army roadblocks. Construction came to a standstill and the neighborhood, which was planned as a home for thousands of families, became a ghost site.

Only after it became clear that the intifada had become a long-term reality did the heavy machinery begin to shake the earth again. Most of the Palestinian workers were replaced by imported workers and the building site came back to life. From the nearby Palestinian villages it is easy to observe the progress of the work at the site. About a year ago shots were fired from one of the villages at the construction workers. The shooting scattered the workers and paralyzed the work for a while. One of the contractors said this week that the quiet that has prevailed since that incident is apparently the result of an understanding between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian neighbors from the three nearby villages - Tsur Baher, Um Tuba and Beit Sahur - were not asked their opinion when lands were confiscated from them for the benefit of the southern borders of Jerusalem. A single thread, as old as the state, runs between the motivation to build Har Homa and the motivation to build many Jewish settlements throughout the territories: to break, at any price, the territorial contiguity in which Palestinians are concentrated. This was the main reason for the establishment of settlements in Gush Katif in Gaza, which is located in the very heart of a Palestinian population.

"Imagine that we had not settled in Morag," commented Reuven Yaakov some time ago. Yaakov moved from Rehovot to the settlement of Morag, which serves as a barrier between Khan Yunis and Rafah. "Imagine that we were to leave here. Do you know what would happen? Khan Yunis and Rafah would link up and the IDF's line would be cut and then, heaven forbid, we could get into a situation in which we would have no more military control. For this reason we must not leave here."

Har Homa also came into the world to break the territorial contiguity of the Palestinians, in the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

Yossi Rosilio, a construction engineer, stood by the bloc of apartments for which he is responsible and sighed. Possibly sighs of contentment, or maybe sighs of distress. In the coming weeks the finishing touches will be completed before the occupants move in to the 35 modern apartments, which have been designated for religious families. Everything is almost ready for the new occupants. There is an underground garage with an electric gate, a Sabbath elevator, mirrors in the entrances to the buildings. The infrastructures have not yet been completed and the roads have not yet been paved.

During the past weeks Rosilio has begun to suspect that there are elements in the government and the municipality who are not keen to populate the neighborhood for fear that the intifada will make its presence felt there as well. "There are political pressures that are blocking the occupancy because the politicians are afraid that very few people will come because of the situation," he explained. "They are delaying the building of the infrastructures until a large number of tenants have accumulated."

But the purchasers of the apartments are also concerned about moving in as long as the uncertainty around the security of the neighborhood and the future of relations with the Palestinians has not been dispelled. During the past year they have been gripped by the fear that a fate like the fate of nearby Gilo lies in wait for their neighborhood. Since the beginning of the intifada things have been topsy-turvy, the home front has become the front line and Gilo has been under constant fire from the adjacent Palestinian neighborhoods, primarily Beit Jala.

"No one believed that everything would go crazy and our life would become hell," said Shmuel Cohen sadly. Years ago he realized an old dream and moved into a new apartment in Gilo. About two years ago he helped his daughter and bought an apartment for her in Har Homa. Times changed and the dream of the father and his daughter to improve their living conditions shattered. The two have found themselves locked into a war zone and their lives have changed. "I could have bought my daughter a second-hand apartment in Gilo for $140,000 or a new four-room apartment in Har Homa for less money," he related. "So I bought in Har Homa. How could I have known there was going to be an intifada?"

His daughter lives in the first and only building into which the occupants have already moved. A few weeks ago a person or persons unknown broke the two entry doors to the building. The new occupants took this as a warning sign from the Palestinian neighbors and panicked. They declared that they would not let their children play outside in the front courtyard for fear of their safety. "They made a fuss about this that has only made the situation worse," explained Cohen at the entrance to the building. "I am sure that this wasn't an act by the Palestinians but by the Bedouin who were watchmen for the building. The occupants fired them so they took revenge and destroyed the entrance."

Cohen is praying that the situation will calm down and the Palestinian neighbors will start to see the Jews living opposite them as neighbors in every respect. "I've managed to calm my daughter down," he added.

Zionism by conquest of the land

Only a few minutes' drive separate Har Homa and the forward settlements of Gush Etzion. The killing has stopped and the attacks have waned. This is the reason the army has relaxed and lifted the roadblocks along the main road in Gush Etzion. Palestinian cars travel the road again alongside Israeli cars. One shooting incident that ends in the killing of a Jew will be enough to undermine the tense quiet that has prevailed here in recent weeks. If this happens, Palestinians' exit from their villages will be restricted, they will be forbidden to use the main road and the roadblocks, fences and spikes will be brought back.

The quiet has relaxed the security arrangements a bit at the entrance to the Jewish settlement of Neveh Daniel. The sentry casts a languid glance at the car that is entering, without stopping it and without checking the people inside it. Along the road that leads to the three-story synagogue, which is in the process of being built, walk Yehoshua Mizrahi and his wife Yael. The couple is a new acquisition at Neveh Daniel in the framework of the settlement's efforts to increase its population. Three weeks ago the couple immigrated to Israel from the United States and settled at Neveh Daniel.

Their families in their hometown, Baltimore, were horrified when Yehoshua and Yael told them of their intention to live in Israel. Their relatives asked: "Why now?" The couple replied: "Israel needs us now." The relatives asked: "Where will you live?" The couple replied: "In Judea and Samaria." Yael, whose American name is Jackie, says that the relatives almost fainted.

It is obvious that Yehoshua enjoys recounting the horrified reaction of his relatives when he informed them that he was going to live in the territories. Even his relatives in Israel, who were glad he was immigrating, have told him that they have absolutely no intention of visiting him. "My aunt said that I could forget it because she is not prepared to travel to the territories," he related.

They had their first taste of the Israeli experience immediately after they came. They were in a shop on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem when the female Palestinian suicide bomber blew herself up and caused death and destruction. When they told their relatives in America about this, the latter begged them to come back to beautiful, safe Baltimore. Jackie told them that even if they wanted to, their four children would be against it because they are so happy in Neveh Daniel that nothing in the world could succeed in getting them out of there.

Yehoshua also feels that he has realized a dream by rectifying his Israeli father's mistake of exchanging his life in Israel decades ago for life in Florida. "I have really made amends," he explained. "It is impossible to live in America and preserve your Jewish identity. And where can the heart find Jewish identity if not in Judea and Samaria? We have immigrated to Israel because we wanted to strengthen the Jews' hold on the land of our forefathers. There are enough Jews in Tel Aviv and there are also enough in Haifa. Here they need us."

Jackie found it difficult to conceal her happiness. "The air here is totally wonderful," she said poetically, as if reading from a book of verse. "What a view. What air. What wonderful people. How close we are to Jerusalem. What a divine taste the fruits and vegetables of the land of Israel have - I can't tell you how happy we are."

During the very short time they have been in Israel, they have already managed to figure out the root of the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians and even to find the right solution for it. They have both firmly concluded that there is no room for two states "in this holy place," as Yehoshua defines it. And they have also had time to formulate an opinion of Zionism. "Secular Zionism is dead," said Yehoshua with conviction. "It is in despair because it has lost its pioneering spirit. The real Zionism is here, in the public with religious faith, because we are realizing it to the letter. And Zionism is one thing: the conquest of the land of Israel."

Settling with lances

Westwards along the road, on the way to the Palestinian village of Tsurif, the houses of Bat Ayyin, the home of newly religious Jews, peek out from among the folds of the hills. Chabad Hasids joined up with Bratslav Hasids and they were joined by graduates of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and together they established an unusual settlement in the landscape of settlement in the Etzion Bloc. Perhaps a settlement, perhaps a spiritual colony. Bat Ayyin was established about 13 years ago as a suitable Zionist response to the peace initiative of American Secretary of State James Baker.

"Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave us permission to establish a settlement and Arik (Ariel) Sharon gave us this hill," said Yaki Morag, one of the founders. At first they were offered settlement outposts that had been abandoned by their inhabitants, but the newly religious insisted on setting up a new Jewish settlement point that would suit their spiritual desires. "We were 31 families, Chabadniks, Bratslavers and Kook-ists," he added, "and we demanded territory beyond the Green Line (pre-June, 1967 border) to stress the connection to the tribe of Judah and to nurture a framework for living that would serve as an example and a light and a magnet for newly religious people."

Now about 100 families live in the settlement. They have recently been joined by a group of Sephardi Jews who have become newly religious. Upon their arrival, they began to build a new synagogue in the Sephardi liturgical style. "We have hippies and India-alumni and all kinds of types," explained Morag, who lived in Nativ Hagdud in the Jordan Valley before he became newly religious. "We are trying to build a Israeli-style Hasidic court here without a rabbi and without a spiritual lord and teacher."

The reputation of Bat Ayyin has spread throughout the Etzion Bloc thanks to the deterrent force its inhabitants have created against the Palestinian neighbors. The inhabitants are proud to say that if a Palestinian dares enter the settlement's lands, he is putting his life in danger. "A few years ago an Arab came and tried to burgle one of the houses," related Baruch Schneourson, who lives there. "We took care of him the right way because we went according to the Shulhan Arukh (ancient codex of Jewish law). We broke his bones and an ambulance had to come take him away. Since then we have not been bothered. The Arabs know who they're dealing with."

A miracle happened to Schneourson that led him to seek meaning in his life. After searching, he found God and became newly religious. He is convinced that God put His sign on him during a bitter tank battle with Syrian soldiers during the Yom Kippur War, in which most of the soldiers of the armored corps in which he was serving were killed. Schneourson survived and since then he has never been the same. He settled in Bat Ayyin and immersed himself in study of mysticism and Kabbala. He would solve the conflict with the Palestinians according to the Shulhan Arukh, and bases himself on the opinions of Rabbi Moshe Isserles. "He says this important sentence," he explains: "`Go out towards them with weapons of war and desecrate the Sabbath for them.' This means rev up the armored vehicle and the tank and wipe them out."

Morag says that Schneourson is considered an exceptional character even in terms of Bat Ayyin. He himself believes in what he calls "active security" as a deterrent means against the Palestinians but recently he has come to the conclusion that the era of settlement with spears is coming to an end. He sees Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as the last of the Mohicans of militant Zionism, and anyone who comes after him will have to find a painful compromise with the Palestinians. "The fact is that I'm living here with the help of the army's lances," he explained, "but anyone who keeps believing in spears could find himself outside the territories because ultimately the army will pull out of them. Therefore anyone who wants to keep living here has to do it on the basis of trust. Sharon is the last bullet in the gun of Zionism. After him, reality will impose a solution. It is necessary to forget about actions of expulsion or grabbing land. Those days are over."

Morag went along with his friend Yossi Kaufman who turned off onto a winding path that leads to a spring on the outskirts of the settlement. Kaufman took off his clothes and jumped straight into the cold water. His friend Rafael Even Danan who bathed before him explained that the daily dip in the spring presages the coming of a new hope. "The greatest mitzva (good deed) is to bathe in a pool of rainwater or primeval waters," he said as he got dressed.

A big and difficult job remains ahead of him, to do with the differences between the groups living in Bat Ayyin. Even though all of them are newly religious, it turns out that each sect is pulling in a direction of its own. Kaufman believes that with time the separations will fade and they will all be like one big family. "The earth of the land of Israel has a magic charm for overcoming divisions," he said, smiling broadly.

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