It’s full speed ahead at Leshem, in the northwestern part of the West Bank. While some people are still amusing – or deceiving – themselves by clinging to the idea of a two-state solution, and while every desperate Palestinian approach to an international organization of any kind is branded a “unilateral move” that violates signed agreements, Israel is building another mega-settlement in the heart of the West Bank at a rapid pace. But that’s not considered a unilateral move, no way.
Dozens of cement “little boxes” are already occupied; hundreds more are under construction. While we were talking about other things, these uniform gray cubes sprang up and completed the malicious territorial continuity stretching from the coastal plain to the urban settlement of Ariel, and from there to Tapuah Junction, Ma’aleh Ephraim and the Jordan Valley – a clear, straight line that bisects the West Bank.
Another spanner in the works of the last, feeble chance of ever establishing a Palestinian state.
In a short time, when construction in this settlement is completed and another few thousand settlers move into its 600 dwellings, and when Ariel and its satellite communities are also recognized as a “settlement bloc” – unilaterally declared to lie within the Israeli consensus and as such never to be evacuated – Israel will be able to congratulate itself on a job well done: the abortion of the unborn state of Palestine.
Welcome to Leshem. One’s impression on approaching the vast building site is that a metropolis is under construction: dozens of intimidating bulldozers, Israel’s modern-day chariots, rolling across the ground on wheels and steel chains, creating an earsplitting din, raising columns of dirt and dust – digging, slashing, drilling, crushing, leveling and wounding the hill that will also become a settlement.
Leshem’s forebears protrude from the surrounding peaks: the settlements of Alei Zahav, Paduel, Ariel and the industrial zones of Barkan and Ariel West. Alongside them, hidden in their shame, are Palestinian towns and villages with the meager land that remains in their hands after most of it was plundered: Kufr a-Dik, Brukin, Deir Balut, Rafat.
Dirt roads lead to the construction site, next to which the first Leshemites are already living. Their children are already frolicking in the new playground, splashes of color in a sea of gray. When these children grow up, no one will be talking to them about a Palestinian state or about settlements. No one will ever tell them their settlement was built on stolen Palestinian land, with the aim of sabotaging the last prospect of a political solution. They will grow up in a national-religious community in homes with four exposures, advanced solar-heating systems, all superbly planned and designed, in what will be considered the center of the country, not far from the forgotten Green Line. Why, there’s Tel Aviv on the horizon, and Ben-Gurion airport, too.
All the homes of this new settlement are uniform in appearance, detached residences calculated to fulfill every Israeli’s dream. Blue-and-white flags are already flapping in the breeze next to the lots, and small- and medium-sized cars, Japanese and Korean, are parked outside the petite bourgeois residences. They will come here out of belief and ideology, but also for “quality of life.”
Leshem is being built as fast as the new highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A bit of history: This community started out as a neighborhood of 19 villas whose construction was halted for unclear reasons – there is more than one version of what happened – and whose skeletons stood abandoned. The Israel Defense Forces trained at the site – then known as Chabad Illit, evoking the neighborhood’s initial period – during the second intifada. In 2010, when construction was renewed on the hill above the villas, it was referred to as a “neighborhood” of the Alei Zahav settlement, that is, the expansion of an already existing settlement. Thus, its establishment would not cause a ruckus, even though the “neighborhood” was actually a completely separate settlement. Everyone knows that Israel doesn’t build new settlements, it only extends existing ones.
But today the signs lead you to Leshem, not to Alei Zahav or any sort of mere neighborhood. This settlement is being built by private entrepreneurs, the road leading to it lies on privately owned Palestinian land, and though the High Court of Justice intervened momentarily, construction went on unimpeded.
Next to Leshem are the splendid antiquities of Deir Samaan, a convent dating from Roman times and throgh the Byzantine era. There aren’t many archaeological sites as impressive and as neglected as this one. It has everything: cisterns and huge mosaic floors, olive presses and flour mills, a sun clock, a trough for horses, ruins of a church and subterranean water systems, stone domes and marble pillars strewn on the ground – the remains of a wondrous ancient way of life.
Moldy green water fills the cisterns and ancient pools, and the whole site is debased by the sooty remains of barbecues, plastic bottles, empty cans of preserves and other garbage left by people who love this land.
The property adjacent to the construction site, including the archaeological ruins, belonged to Fars a-Dik. A lecturer in political science at American University in Jenin, he’s 35, single and works for an NGO involved in developing public-health policy. He lives in Kufr a-Dik, the neighboring village, population 6,000, most of whose lands were plundered and declared state land in order to create Leshem, even though Kufr a-Dik was then left with no land on which to build. About 100 families have already left the village for Ramallah.
Fars a-Dik had a small olive grove of 25 dunams (6.25 acres), which his father planted 35 years ago. In 1996, the state expropriated part of the family’s land and declared it an archaeological site, namely Deir Samaan. The son now has a monstrous construction site next to what’s left of his grove, and his trees are covered with layers of dust and construction waste. White olive trees are what’s left, offering no olives to pick.
His land is surrounded on all sides by settlements, and once Leshem is fully populated it’s unlikely that he’ll be allowed access to his land. A-Dik knows this. Leshem also separates him from another plot of land that belongs to his family. He hardly ever goes there, because of the great distance he has to traverse to reach it. Farmers from a neighboring village are working that land for him.
A-Dik likens the construction of Leshem to a finger that Israel is poking into the heart of the West Bank in order to break it apart.
“The Israelis want to unify all the settlements in the area into one unit,” he says, “and turn the Palestinian villages between them into a vast prison, to which Israel has the key. If Israel wants, it will open up and allow us access to our land, and if not, it won’t. It’s more likely that it won’t. Kufr a-Dik will turn from a village into a camp, because there’s nowhere left to build in it. When [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas talk about a territorial swap, it’s my land they’re talking about.”
But a-Dik knows that even the talk about land swaps is now no more than idle prattle.
He has a friend in England who recently visited him in his village, for the first time in five years. He couldn’t believe his eyes.