Residents of the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar woke up last week to find a surprising letter in their mailboxes. The anonymous author sought to draw their attention to a theft of land by Avri Ran, founder of the Givot Olam outpost and the patron saint of the “hilltop youth.” After 17 years of lauding Ran as a hero for his agricultural enterprise, Itamar residents discovered that those who didn’t cry out when he expropriated Arab lands had just become his next victims.
The letter, written to mimic the style of a leftist organization complaining of land theft, read as follows:
“More than a month ago, massive earthwork began at the foot of the Mitzpeh, on the eastern side,” it said, referring to the hill known as Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim. “The beautiful rockery that was there was destroyed. Trees were uprooted.
“We appealed to Avri Ran, who launched the work there and was carrying it out. To our astonishment, it turned out that what was planned was the establishment of nothing more or less than a chicken coop. Our requests to him that he stop the work went unanswered. Avri claimed that this was his private land, and therefore, he was permitted to do as he pleased with it. After an in-depth investigation into the land’s status, it’s clear to us beyond a doubt that this land doesn’t belong to Avri, it was never bought by him, and he has no right to turn this exquisite site into his private property.”
The story begins back in 1995, when Ran who was born on Kibbutz Nahsholim, served in Sayeret Matkal, the army general staff’s elite special operations unit, and then became religiously observant was searching for a place that would satisfy both his spiritual and his practical aspirations. He decided to set up an outpost on a hill east of Itamar, with the goal of returning to nature and leading an agricultural lifestyle.
The outlaw grows rich
In 1998, he started the Givot Olam farm, where he lives to this day. He got the land cheaply by trespassing on both state land and land belonging to the nearby Palestinian village of Yanun. He attacked any Arab who approached his land and was convicted of assault four times, including one case of aggravated assault.
As his fame grew, he attracted many radical settler youth who hated the petit bourgeois lifestyle in the settlements where they grew up. These youths called themselves the “hilltop youth.”
Today, Ran devotes himself to his agricultural business, which has a turnover of tens of millions of shekels a year and employs dozens of people. He has a flock of goats and an enormous hen house and grows various types of crops. Four trucks take his produce throughout the country under the brand name “Givot Olam.” An associate says that nowadays, “he can’t afford to let himself spend half a year under house arrest: His business is too big.”
But when it’s no longer possible to expand at the expense of the Arabs, the Jews are next in line. Near his farm is an 866-meter-high hill known as Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim. On a clear day, Lake Kinneret, the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea are all visible from its peak, Itamar residents say; some claim you can even see Cyprus from it.
Today, there is nothing on the hill except an army antenna. But about six weeks ago, Ran’s tractors began leveling the ground nearby. He planted a vineyard there, and alongside it he laid the infrastructure for his new chicken coop.
Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim is located between Givot Olam and another hill known as 777. Residents of 777, an outpost of Itamar, had planned to turn it into a tourist site, complete with a promenade from which to enjoy the view. So when they saw Ran’s tractors at work, they rushed to protest. But they quickly discovered what Yanun residents had discovered 15 years earlier: Nothing will stop Ran.
The residents therefore formed the Committee to Save Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim, which meets every week in the house of Ran Segal, the leader of 777. The group decided to fire off a letter to the Samaria Regional Council and demand the authorities’ intervention.
“We’re all full of admiration for Avri for his steps to conquer [land] in Samaria,” the letter said. “But those exact same deeds are being committed today against his Jewish neighbors.”
The problem for Itamar residents is that there really is no law and order there. Journalist Aviv Lavie, in an article about Ran published 10 years ago, wrote that Itamar is the place “where the occupation ends and the Wild West begins.” Residents of 777, who complain about Ran’s illegal annexation of Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim, are themselves illegal squatters: The hill is outside the boundaries of the Samaria Regional Council. The Civil Administration, which is responsible for law enforcement in the settlements, hasn’t enforced the law on Itamar’s hilltops for 15 years.
So what do you do when there is no law? You appoint an arbitrator.
The arbitrator will apparently be Benny Katzover, one of the founders of the Samarian settlements. Residents of 777 want Ran to stop work until the arbitrator rules, but the regional council has told them that this, too, should be decided as part of the arbitration process.
Meanwhile, one Itamar wag has proposed a creative solution. In the past, Ran has claimed that due to the “respect” they have for him, residents of nearby Arab villages often ask him to arbitrate their disputes. “If so, perhaps the time has come for them to repay the favor, and the mayor of the neighboring village should arbitrate our dispute,” he said.
Ran declined to comment for this article. The Committee to Save Mitzpeh Shloshet Hayamim told Haaretz that the time is not yet ripe for them to talk to the media.