Israeli Students in State-funded Scholarship Program Guard Illegal West Bank Outposts

University students housed in villages operated by the Kedma association volunteer to guard Jewish shepherds’ farms, against some of which there are demolition orders

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
The student village of the Kedma organization in Pnei Kedem, September 8, 2020.
The student village of the Kedma organization in Pnei Kedem, September 8, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Student villages belonging to the Kedma association, which receives funding from the Israeli government, are providing security services for illegal outposts as part of the terms of the scholarships they receive from the NGO.

Kedma received 3.3 million shekels ($1 million) from the education and agriculture ministries in 2018, according to a report by the association, as well as 498,000 shekels ($145,000) from local authorities. Following Israel's general election in March, responsibility for student villages was transferred from the Education Ministry to the Higher Education Ministry.

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In 2013, a student named Tira-El Cohen founded Kedma, which has established eight student villages, mostly in the West Bank. It operates them in the settlements of Ma’aleh Efraim, Almog, Shim’a, Pnei Kedem, Rimonim and Mekhora, as well as Nir Oz near the Gaza Strip and Misgav in the Galilee. Kedma also runs groups as part of the pre-army national service program in Rimonim and Ma’aleh Efraim. The association reported in 2018 that it employed 17 workers and 330 volunteers.

The student village of the Kedma organization in Pnei Kedem, September 8, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

Apart from the state funding, the NGO provides students with scholarships through the Perach mentoring project, which pairs up needy children with university students, as well as through the Payis national lottery. Kedma provided 431 student scholarships worth 1.1 million shekels (about $320,000) in 2018. The association also receives support from the pro-settler Amana movement and the Council of Judea and Samaria.

Kedma requires scholarship recipients to do 300 hours of volunteering. The hours are divided between mentoring for Perach and what is called “village hours,” which include volunteering in agriculture, at a settlement pub or guarding one of the surrounding ranches, all of which are illegal outposts. Setting up ranches for shepherds has become a popular way to expand settlements in recent years. They impact a much broader area in practice because the herds they grow need vast spaces for grazing. This practice allows the illegal outposts to control a maximum area with a minimum number of residents. A Haaretz investigation found that 11 such outposts were established between 2011 and 2017.

One of the places that Kedma students volunteer at is the Pnei Kedem ranch, which is part of the Pnei Kedem outpost. Relations between the settlers and nearby Palestinian residents are murky. Palestinians complained to the police that over 1,000 olive trees were uprooted in 2019 and another 250 in 2020, and that wells were destroyed. Moreover, attorney Kamer Mashraqi of Haqel: Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights wrote to the legal adviser of the Judea and Samaria battalion that the army prevented Palestinian residents from entering their lands, and that the path to them is blocked by an iron gate. She also wrote that settlers had put beds and chairs on private Palestinian land and refused to leave.

Signs for the student village of the Kedma organization in Pnei Kedem, September 8, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

In addition, Kedma students living in Ma’aleh Efraim said that they are guarding a ranch at Kida, which is adjacent to that settlement, while students in Shim’a in the South Hebron Hills are volunteering to guard the ranch at Mitzpeh Eshtamoa, while students in Mekhora in the Jordan Valley volunteer at night to guard cattle at Asa’el, located next to the settlement of Maskiot. One student from Mekhora told Haaretz that during the summer a herd of cows belonging to “someone from one of the hills in Itamar” arrived, and there is an option to fill “some of the scholarship hours by guarding the cows.”

She added that some of the students guard ranches in the area of the illegal outposts Esh Kodesh and Shilo. Students who have lived in Kedma villages said that they also guarded the ranch of Itamar Cohen in the Itamar hills – which is located within a firing zone known as 904a. The latter ranches are located on state land. Two of them face demolition orders – Pnei Kedem and Tzon Kida. In a Facebook post by Hashomer Judea and Samaria, a pro-settler organization, in May, the organization thanked students from Ma’aleh Efraim in the Jordan Valley for helping with guarding various ranches. Hashomer was established in 2013 with the goal of helping herders in West Bank settlements.

Dror Etkes of Kerem Navot said that the outposts are a central means of developing settlements and controlling Palestinian lands. “This is a well-oiled machine that enjoys access to very substantial public funds, which chooses the precise location of the outposts, prepares the land for [their] establishment, provides settlers with equipment and vehicles, trains the settlers, provides the livestock and coordinates all these moves with the Civil Administration and the army, which provides these outposts a blanket of security from the moment they are built,” he said.

Kedma commented: “Kedma works to fulfill the pioneering dream of youths regarding Israel’s borders across the country, from the Jordan Valley through the Upper Galilee to the area around Gaza. Hundreds of youth join us yearly in Zionist activity and education, volunteering in the community and pioneering agriculture, in shepherding, fields and groves. We operate in coordination and with approval, and view it with an enormous sense of [being part of a] mission and great pride.

A building from the student village in Pnei Kedem, September 8, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

The Agriculture Ministry commented in response that “Kedma operates nine student villages in the Israeli periphery, with an emphasis on various areas on the ‘hard’ periphery. The students engage in volunteering activity in agriculture as part of the association’s work. The association is expanding its work near Gaza and is working on developing the young community in the area. The association is supported through the rule on volunteers in agriculture by virtue of a government decision to support agricultural work and to protect agricultural lands, which are also located outside the Green Line,” referring to the pre-1967 armistice line.

The ministry added that it’s “support is given after proof of the farmers’ rights to the land. The annual support is actually around 700,000 shekels annually. Absent state funding, it is doubtful if this activity would continue.”

The Education and Higher Education Ministries declined to comment.

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