On the road between the established West Bank settlements of Alon Shvut and Rosh Tzurim, in the western part of Gush Etzion, is a promenade with a view of vineyards that is popular for walks and exercise in the autumn air. It passes the centuries-old “lone oak,” in a tourist area that has been developed with the cooperation of the tourism and agriculture ministries. The Etzion Bloc is a series of settlements between which one can travel without going near Palestinian villages or towns.
This contiguity is breached near the middle of the promenade. People with sharp eyes will notice a right-hand turn into a small, rough road. At the end is Khirbet Zakariyyah. There’s no sign to indicate the entrance to the village. All of its buildings are considered illegally built and face demolition. They are huddled together, without utilities.
In August, something unusual happened. The Civil Administration said it would advance state recognition for 50 buildings and the construction of infrastructure. This move evoked an immediate and furious response by adjacent settlements and the Jewish National Fund, which joined forces in an attempt to convince the Defense Ministry to revoke this decision.
The villagers were deeply disappointed by the response. Over the years, they had developed friendly relations with nearby settlers. Media reports in the past described these relations, which included a visit by women from Kfar Etzion, thanking a Khirbet Zakariyyah man for helping to put out a fire. A different villager once reported his discovery of explosive charges laid in the area.
“We always had ties with settlers and other Israelis,” says the head of the village council, Mohammed Ibrahim Atalah Saad. “Now they suddenly say we can’t have a plan for the village because we pose a danger? That hurts me, it’s simply not true.”
Saad estimated the village’s current population at about 350. Many residents work in agriculture at adjacent settlements, at a big supermarket at the main intersection, at a nearby gas station, and even at the Etzion yeshiva. Despite this, opponents of the plan claim it will endanger settlers and “break the continuity of Jewish settlement in the area.”
Saad said his pain is even greater given his attempts to maintain friendly relations over the years, even at the expense of sacrificing other interests. He says that on several occasions he refused offers from human rights organizations to help with plans for the village and that he preferred to adhere to the Civil Administration plan, “to create a good atmosphere.” Throughout this time, villagers continued to live without proper infrastructure and without building permits.
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As a result, many younger villagers leave. Most rent space in nearby Palestinian towns. They can’t afford to buy a home, but they cannot stay in the village.
Small plan, great opposition
Surrounding Khirbet Zakariyyah are four even smaller villages, collectively numbering 650 residents. Together, they constitute part of one rural unit. The proposed plan relates only to the area of the central village, without addressing the smaller ones.
Despite the plan’s limited scope, it provoked an immediate reaction in nearby settlements. A preliminary discussion at the Civil Administration, scheduled for mid-August, was canceled after the heads of 17 area settlements sent a letter to Defense Minister Benny Gantz claiming the plan threatens the “unity of the bloc” and Civil Administration employees went on strike.
Two weeks ago, Gantz toured the area at the insistence of the settlers. He did not visit Khirbet Zakariyyah or meet with any residents. Kan 11 News reported that after the visit Gantz decided to reconsider the plan, but he is yet to respond to this claim. Saad was not invited on the tour.
Settlers as well as the JNF have been pressuring the Defense Ministry on the plan. After learning about it, the JNF representative, lawyer Dina Yahav, demanded that the Civil Administration issue a stop order to halt it. According to the JNF, part of the designated area comes under a plan it owns. The issue has not been decided yet. The Civil Administration is scheduled to discuss the plan’s cancellation Thursday.
The background for the JNF’s involvement is an ongoing dispute with Khirbet Zakariyyah. The JNF, backed by a Supreme Court ruling, says that in 1944 it bought 522 dunams (129 acres) of land, now part of Rosh Tzurim. The regional council building and farmland account for some of the parcel.
However, the legal title for the land held by the JNF only included 74 dunams. In legal proceedings initiated in 1999, Saad argues that the area the JNF wants to register in its name is his farmland. The courts ruled for the JNF, but the land has not yet been registered, pending further discussions at the Civil Administration.
In the meantime, the village’s residents continue to suffer from a poor quality of life. This includes not just the absence of infrastructure or the prohibition on new construction. The village mosque is still without a minaret. Its construction was never approved. Not far from it, the elementary school’s roof leaks. Saad stands outside the schoolyard, pointing to Alon Shvut and the large educational center there that includes a yeshiva and college. “I’m the head of the village council, but I have no ability to do a thing,” he admits. “When my child asks me why over there is a nice road, and we don’t have one, I don’t have a good answer for him.”
Love and trust, up to a point
In recent months, it seems that the campaign against the plan has divided settlers in the area, illuminating their positions and relationships in a complex light. Thus, for example, Yaron Rosenthal, who is responsible for purchases at Kfar Etzion, is a leader of the opponents of this plan. He’s been considered a moderate for years. In 2018, he ran for the post of head of the regional council, losing to someone then considered more extreme, Shlomo Ne’eman. But now, it seems that he’s overtaken Ne’eman in his extreme positions.
Some reports suggest that the moves promoting regulating construction in Khirbet Zakariyyah were initiated with the knowledge of the regional council. Rosenthal protests: “The Etzion Bloc is currently the only place in which there is a free Jewish life in the West Bank settlements. This includes women jogging and children riding bikes. If there is a large Arab village here, this will stop.”
Council head Shlomo Ne’eman recently toured the area around the village together with MKs Orit Strock and Yoav Kish, both members of the Land of Israel Knesset caucus. After the visit, the council issued a statement claiming the move would set a precedent for approving Arab construction in the midst of Jewish settlements. According to Rosenthal, he and his colleagues are worried that approval of this plan will lead to a movement of Palestinians from other communities to this village. “In principle, I’m for coexistence, but only when it doesn’t endanger Jews,” he declares. “Furthermore, [veteran kibbutzim] Beit Alfa and Nir David would also not agree to have an Arab village between them.”
Joining the argument is Shaul Goldstein, a former head of the Etzion Bloc Regional Council who now heads the Nature and Parks Authority. He says he was the first person to initiate a plan to regularize the village, 15 years ago. “We love and trust the residents of Khirbet Zakariyyah. A resident was the caretaker of our elementary school; he had keys to it,” recalls Goldstein. He says there were always people against the plan. “I’m very right-wing; the land belongs to us without question, but I don’t believe this is the way to treat people living close to communities such as Alon Shvut, which do have infrastructure and everything else,” he says in qualifying the first part of his statement.
But even Goldstein means only a very limited kind of plan. He says that as part of launching the idea, the council conducted a census in the village in order to ensure that Palestinians from other villages don’t move in after infrastructure is built. He says that he halted the plan after learning that the Civil Administration was planning to approve 400 housing units.
On the background of the bureaucratic mess and the pressures being applied, the fate of Khirbet Zakariyyah’s residents remains unclear. “We are eight people living in one room,” says Saad. “All we want is to live like human beings. 50 units is not enough, but things should begin somewhere.”
Gantz refused to comment on this story. The JNF said that “according to a Supreme Court ruling, JNF subsidiary Himnuta Jerusalem owns the land. Himnuta operates and will continue to operate for the protection of its land and ownership rights, in accordance with decisions made by the authorized bodies at the JNF.”
Shlomo Ne’eman, the head of the Etzion Bloc Regional Council, said that “indeed, over a decade ago the council initiated a plan for the residents of Khirbet Zakariyyeh. We are now in a completely different place. We conduct our business with the Defense Ministry and other relevant agencies, confident that no construction plan by the Palestinian Authority will be approved in the Etzion Bloc.”