It was early in the morning and the tony suburb was waking up to its day. Young parents rushed to get their little ones into the car, headed for nursery school, leaving behind their designer homes and lush gardens. The morning joggers finished their running quota for the day, decked out in their latest-fashion athletic gear. At the bus stops, children waited to get picked up for school, while their parents made their way into work in the big city. Within an hour the suburb would be emptied of most of its residents. An ancient view could be seen in the surrounding hills and valley around. Dozens of bicycles and baby carriages remained unlocked in front of the houses; there are no thieves here.
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Good morning, Netiv Ha’avot. As early as last year, the state informed the High Court of Justice that it intended to legalize this outpost (too). The land here is privately owned, formerly the property of the Mussa family from the village of El Khader.
Whoever imagines the outposts in the West Bank as a handful of trailers perched atop a bald mountain, or a group of settlers with long sidelocks and piercing gazes, is invited to tour Outpost Country, version 2012. Out of a total of about 100 such outposts, there are a few that look like the height of bourgeois life.
“Settlers here made the real estate deal of their lives,” says Dror Etkes, the man who has made his name monitoring settlements, who is sitting in his jeep. Gush Etzion is the heart of the new “consensus” in Israel. This, of course, they will never evacuate, as any kindergartener can tell you. Neve Daniel to the north, Betar Illit to the northwest, Rosh Tzurim to the west, Alon Shvut to the south, Efrat to the east, and Migdal Oz to the southeast.
We cross through the legal settlement of Elazar, surrounded by the remnants of Palestinian farms, vineyards and olive groves, and turn to the outpost Netiv Ha’avot. On the spot where until two years ago Elazar’s chicken coops stood, what’s being called the “chicken coop neighborhood” has already gone up, with dozens of identical two-story houses, a design called the Israeli “cottage.” Construction on it began two weeks before the start of the famous freeze of 2009-1010.
How do we know how much construction is taking place at a given settlement? By the number of Palestinian cars parked at its gate. Palestinian laborers from the village of Nahalin are toiling here over the last of the houses, whose construction has not been completed yet. Already ensconced are the Hershkowitz, Ben-Lulu, Klein, Bloom and Dreyfus families. Their names are emblazoned on the entrances to their homes. The streets are named Nisanit, Neve Dekalim, Ganei Tal, Netzarim, Netzer Hazani − Gaza settlements that were evacuated in 2005.
Etkes whips out his laptop. He displays a sequence of his periodically shot aerial photographs: Here is the chicken coop neighborhood two years ago and here it is today. That is how Etkes knows when each house in each settlement was built and when another porch was closed off. Everything outside the blue line of his aerial photograph is outside the settlement’s jurisdiction. Netiv Ha’avot, which is officially defined as an expansion and as a neighborhood of Elazar − Israel doesn’t build new settlements after all − is well outside the blue line.
Last November, Chaim Levinson reported in this paper that the state had tried to conceal an internal report of the Civil Administration that determined categorically that Netiv Ha’avot was built largely on private farmed land, so that the petitions to restore the land to its rightful owners would continue to bounce around between the courts and the authorities.
A mosaic sign: Netiv Ha’avot. The slogan emblazoned on the bottle-recycling bin, “Excuses go in the trash, the bottles in the recycler,” demonstrates that we are dealing here with a citizenry that is well-intentioned and ecologically conscious. Whom do all these vineyards belong to? − we ask a young mother who is in a rush to drive her kids to nursery school. “They’re the neighbors’ − they belong to the Gertler family,” she replies affably.
The Gertlers live in a big red house on the side of the mountain. Etkes checks his photographs: Their house was built in 2007. The adjacent house belongs to the Carmelis, a build-your-own-home: Here, there is no uniform style and at least some of the residences have been built with great taste. An armor-protected bus from Gush Etzion takes the children to their school, in the neighboring settlement. A ad on the back of the bus promises “a direct line to a bachelor’s and master’s degree,” from Herzog College in Gush Etzion, which is visible on the ridge across from us.
We drive from Gush Etzion northward to western Samaria. Welcome to Brukhin, the largest of the West Bank outposts, between Ariel and Alei Zahav. A dozen red-roof, two-storied, identical cottages, whose construction is nearly complete, stand desolate at the entrance to this community. The construction was frozen by order of the High Court of Justice. Their second-story windows have been sealed with concrete. Etkes explains that this is the typical construction method: Quickly build the exterior of the structures and move people into the ground floor, so that it becomes hard to evacuate them. Later the residents will get around to finishing the second floor. For now, the building of these houses has been frozen and they won’t be ready for occupancy until all of Brukhin is legalized.
The outpost was founded as a trailer neighborhood in 1998. The second stage included 60 private homes. The land is not private; rather it’s “survey land” or “state land,” but the community was built without permits and its residents did not pay for the land. These 60 villas are of uniform design, exactly like the dozen where the construction was frozen, and all are painted a soft cream color.
The community’s website says there are 101 families living here, and it contains a long list of officials, as one finds at all of the settlements: community rabbi, chairman of the secretariat, plenary member, secretary (male), secretary (female), ongoing security coordinator with the army, community coordinator, librarian, spokesman, community emergency team chairman, and ritual bath attendant. Most, if not all, receive their salaries from the state.
The houses are spacious; at this late-morning hour, hardly anyone seems to be at home. Here too the chirping of birds is the only sound that can be heard. The playground is empty. A van that does “Haulage, Furniture Dismantling and Assembly,” is unloading its contents into a house. The Samaria Regional Council congratulates Brukhin’s residents on taking first place in the Nationwide Education Prize contest, and a branch of Cafe Cafe in Ariel invites the residents to the Mimouna celebration, “From Slavery to Liberty.”
The sign outside the Hadas kindergarten, which was built with the kindly help of Dr. Irving & Mrs. Cherna Moskowitz, bears the official symbol of the Ministry of Education of the State of Israel. The sign at the entrance to the outpost, “Brukhin Infrastructure and Development Works,” lists, among other entities, the Ministry of Housing and Construction.
The trailer neighborhood is also expanding itself to death: Every one has added on another room. Instead of fences, these dwellings are protected by watchdogs tied to iron chains, and Israel’s defense forces guard the entrance to the outpost. There is also a “coffee corner for the benefit of the soldiers and in memory of our cherished brothers who died for the sanctity of the people and the land.”
“You Give, We Remove,” announce two moving trucks hurtling down the Samarian roads, as we arrive at Havat Yair, between Yakir and Nofim, perhaps the most beautiful and spacious of the outposts. Its website informs that it was built on “state lands.” Attorney Talia Sasson wrote in her 2005 report on the subject of the outposts that these were private lands. Havat Yair was named for Yair Stern, leader of the pre-state underground group Lehi, although the website also notes the name of Yair Ben Menashe from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Yair son of Menashe took all the region of Argob, unto the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called them, even Bashan, after his own name, Havot-Yair, unto this day” (Deuteronomy 3:14)
The plots are large, the gardens are expansive, and the landscape is breathtaking. Some of the houses are made of wood. “Tamari’s Shack,” a wood-paneled coffee shop that was built by Doron Nir Zvi, of the so-called Land Redemption Fund, adds to the semblance of normalcy. Sadly, the coffee shop is open, so says the website, only on Thursday evenings, Friday mornings and Saturday nights, and we have not come at the right time.
Here too, it’s very quiet at noontime. Colorful flowerbeds in the front of the Traube family’s wooden house. A trampoline for kids in the garden of another home. Only the houses of Qarwat Bani Hassan across the way somewhat spoil the view.
The path leading down to the spring at the foot of Havat Yair is rocky and steep. Not far from here, bulldozers are sawing through another mountain and building another settlement − Leshem, it’s called, an expansion of Alei Zahav. “Outsiders Not Permitted,” says the sign on the dirt road leading to the settlement-in-the-making, which crosses the land of a Palestinian woman from Kafr al-Dik. The first stage of construction is set to include 100 homes.
In the spring at the foot of Havat Yair, the water flows silently from the rock. The entire valley is strewn with Spiny broom bushes now blooming in yellow. Tiny tadpoles leap inside the pools near the spring. By the time they become frogs, Wadi al-Majur will likely have turned into Emek Almagor.
In the meantime, the land is still dotted with droppings from a flock that passed through, but somebody has already erected an improvised dirt barrier at the end of the road − just to be on the safe side.