In the summer of 1979, I stood on a rocky, wind-swept cliff in Samaria several hundred metres above sea level. Beneath, in a narrow valley, lay the historic Palestinian town of Nablus. Behind me were an assortment of caravans, all of which were inhabited by the Jewish settlers of Elon Moreh, a brand new outpost in the heart of the West Bank.
Founded by a group of Gush Emunim members led by Benny Katzover and Menahem Felix, Elon Moreh was supported by Israel’s prime minister, Menahem Begin, an ardent advocate of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. Israeli peaceniks, however, opposed Jewish settlement in the West Bank, so Elon Moreh became the subject of a Supreme Court case.
The settlers I spoke to on that day 37 years ago seemed indifferent to the legal controversy they had stirred up. Determined to stay and build, they compared themselves to the early Zionists of pre-state Palestine. With sufficient faith and fortitude, they told me, they would ultimately prevail.
In retrospect, they were right.
The settlers were dealt a series of setbacks in trying to establish Elon Moreh, but in the end, they achieved their primary objective. Though forced to move to a nearby site in the West Bank, they kept the dream of Elon Moreh vibrantly alive. Elon Moreh grew by leaps and bounds and became a full-fledged settlement, one of 120 in the West Bank inhabited by some 350,000 Jews today.
Elon Moreh came to mind as I thought of Israel’s settlement project in the West Bank, which has been condemned by friends and foes alike as an infringement of international law.
Critics of Israeli policy usually talk about these major settlements, but rarely refer to the unauthorized outposts scattered throughout the West Bank.
Israel has repeatedly promised to dismantle these “illegal” outposts, of which there are now about 100. And while a handful have been removed by the Israeli army in recent years, upwards of one-third have been retroactively legalized. With a right-wing government dictating Israel’s agenda, the rest of the “illegal” outposts are likely to be legalized and converted into latter-day “Elon Morehs.”
As critics unfailingly point out, the presence of scores of settlements and outposts in the West Bank imperils the prospects of a two-state solution, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorses in principle but not in practice.
Although Netanyahu has assured the international community that Israel will not construct new settlements, he has allowed existing ones to expand. And as far as the outposts are concerned, he has permitted them be registered as “neighborhoods” of “legal” settlements, despite the fact that they’re kilometres apart and are really separate entities. This ploy enables Netanyahu to fend off criticism from abroad.
Outposts emerged as an issue as the Oslo peace process got under way in 1993. With Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin having decided to freeze the construction of “political” settlements, or those which did not contribute to Israel’s security, settlers responded by building unauthorized outposts between Palestinian villages.
In 1998, while serving as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s first government, Ariel Sharon urged settlers to “grab” hilltops in the West Bank to facilitate the construction of outposts.
Talia Sasson, a former state prosecutor who wrote a scathing report on the outposts in 2005, argues they could not have been built without the assistance of the government. Officials in key ministries sympathetic to the settlement movement provided construction funds and sent soldiers to guard them. They were thus directly complicit in the rise of the outposts.
Sasson, in her report, said they constituted a “blatant violation of the law.” She called for “drastic steps” to remove outposts built on private Palestinian land. Her recommendation was basically ignored by the government.
Four years ago, Netanyahu appointed a retired Supreme Court judge, Edmund Levy, to study the matter. While he claimed that the West Bank is not occupied, he agreed that settlements and outposts built on private Palestinian land are “illegal.”
Since the vast majority of outposts are situated on state land, it seems clear that Israel will not remove them. This would be in keeping with Netanyahu’s policy of creating facts on the ground so that a geographically contiguous and viable Palestinian state in the West Bank never sees the light of day.