Creeping Construction Boom Jewish Settlements Threaten Viability of Palestinian State

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Part 2: 'Building Is Our Form of Protest'

A few days later, the army attempts to clear three new trailers set up by the Yesha Council in the Bnei Adam outpost, which consists of about a dozen or so shacks altogether. But the residents refuse to leave, and the soldiers leave without having achieved anything. They are under orders not to provoke any excesses.

The next night, Weiss called upon hundreds of young people, who come by in droves over the course of the following day from the surrounding settlements, ready to resist the soldiers if they return.

About 30 youths are already there, equipped with sheets of plywood and wooden beams to build a new house. Every evacuation or attempted evacuation is met with resistance -- and with even more houses. This is the settlers' mode of operation.

"Building is our form of protest," says Tirael, who arrived in Bnei Adam a few hours ago. "The more the army destroys, the more we build."

She is familiar with rebuilding. Tirael lives in Ramat Migron, an illegal outpost on the opposite hill, where the army has torn down the wooden huts five times in the one-and-a-half years she has lived there. "But each time our houses become bigger and more beautiful," she says.

They live along on the hill, without parents, five girls, five boys, in two huts, says Tirael. They have no electricity, no telephone, they bring their water up the hill in bottles, and they earn money to buy food with casual work. Tirael sometimes works as a babysitter -- after school. She is only 16.

This time Tirael must accept defeat. Two days later, Israel's Supreme Court rules that Bnei Adam must be evacuated. But even as the young settlers make headlines, the settlers' leaders take a more inconspicuous and yet far more effective approach. There is currently a construction boom everywhere in the settlements of the West Bank. The more houses and residents the settlements acquire, the less possible it will be to evacuate them later. The withdrawal of the 7,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip cost Israel close to €2 billion ($2.85 billion) for security and compensation payments. By extrapolation, the cost of evacuating all 300,000 settlers from the West Bank could cost up to €80 billion -- more than the annual budget of the state of Israel.

An Artificial Distinction

And yet the government does not even take steps to prevent growth in the settlements that are illegal under Israeli law. On the contrary, the government spends millions on the outposts, in funds that are hidden deeply within the budgets of ministries, which do not distinguish between expenditures for Israel and for the occupied territories. At least 16 illegal outposts are financed directly, as the Israeli peace movement Peace Now shows in its most recent report. Power lines are still being installed, highways and schools built and local public transport subsidized.

Map: Settlements in the West Bank

Map: Settlements in the West Bank

This is precisely what Dror Etkes, 40, of the human rights organization Yesh Din calls the "Israeli dissonance." "There is a huge gap between what Israel is supposed to do under the Oslo Accords and what it has in fact done," he says.

For this reason, says Etkes, there is no point in differentiating between the outposts and the settlements. "The distinction the government draws between settlements and outposts is artificial -- intentionally so." The government wants the debate, Etkes argues, to be focused on the radical Hilltop Youth, while settlement construction continues.

The borders of many settlements were generously expanded in recent years, up to 40 percent of the West Bank is now under Israeli ownership. When houses are built on this land, the international protests are not nearly as vocal as when new settlements are established. But the consequences are the same: The Israeli population of the West Bank grows, while the prospects for a viable Palestinian state dwindle.

Creating a Fait Accompli

Peace activist Etkes is possibly the settlers' greatest enemy, even though he was once a settler himself. He grew up in French Hill, a Jewish enclave in Arab East Jerusalem, and he was stationed in the West Bank while serving in the military. He is intimately familiar with the area, and he is constantly scanning the ridges of hills to spot new illegal structures.

And his efforts are often successful. On this day, he has discovered 12 new trailers on the outskirts of the Kochav Yaakov settlements, in an area where new structures are illegal. Bulldozers are already on their way to clear the ground for additional residential units.

Etkes takes pictures and then calls Yesh Din's attorney. The group decides to write a petition immediately, hoping to obtain an order to tear down the illegal structures within a few days. The timing is critical, because it takes only a few days to connect the trailers to the electricity and water supply. Once the structures are occupied, it is often too late to conduct an evacuation. This is the settlers' tactic: to create a fait accompli within a few days.

Yesh Din has begun filing lawsuits against those who erect the illegal structures, who are in fact violating Israeli borders. The organization has already filed 20 suits, in which verdicts are still pending. But the pressure is already having the desired effect in some places -- for example, in Migron, a fortress-like hilltop settlement with two enormous antennas protruding from it like missiles. The Israeli army provides security for Migron, home to 322 people. Electricity from Israel keeps the streetlights lit, and the settlement has a kindergarten and high-speed Internet. Millions of euros in government funds have been pumped into Migron, even though it is an outpost -- the largest in the West Bank.

Migron is on the list of 23 illegal settlements on the original evacuation list. It has already been established that it will eventually be evacuated. The only question is when. The government is playing for time, as it negotiates, once again, to achieve an amicable solution.

It is already clear that Migron's settlers will not go to Israel proper, but instead will move to the other side of the valley, into the Adam settlement's new construction zone. Houses, roads and water lines will be built there soon. The new Migron will no longer be a trailer settlement, but a city of concrete buildings. And it'll be far more difficult to evacuate.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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