Creeping Construction Boom Jewish Settlements Threaten Viability of Palestinian State

While politicians in Jerusalem squabble with the Americans over halting the construction of new settlements in the West Bank, the settlers themselves are quietly proceeding with construction in a bid to create a fait accompli on the ground. The radical young generation is even digging caves as outposts.

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt


Yedidya, 18, is wearing braces and worn sandals, and his matted hair hasn't been cut in a while. When he speaks, he stares at the floor of the cave he has laboriously dug into the hillside with a shovel and a pickaxe over the last two years. The cave is the size of a child's room, and the books on the few wooden boards that serve as shelves include religious literature and works on the history of the Jewish underground movement. Articles of clothing are tucked into crevices in the rocky walls.

Yedidya is part of a vanguard of settlers known as Noar Hagvaot, or "Hilltop Youth." He and other youths are establishing illegal outposts deep inside the West Bank, mostly on Palestinian soil. Yedidya's outpost is between Nablus and Kalkilya. Yedidya and his friends call it Shvut Ami, or "Return of my People."

And indeed, returning is often what these settlers do. Shvut Ami has been evacuated more times that Yedidya can remember. "The army is constantly showing up here, and sometimes they destroy our camp. We just come back the next day," he says. That's the attraction of having a cave -- it's not so easy to destroy. A cave could be boarded up or filled in, but that would be too much work for the soldiers.

Grabbing the Hilltops

On this day, an army jeep pulls up to Shvut Ami. Three soldiers, who don't look any older than the young settlers themselves, tramp up the hill, smiling and looking relaxed. A few words are exchanged, and the youths climb down from their hill. One of them, carrying a plastic bag filled with dirty laundry, meets his parents in their car on the road below and they drive off.

That was an evacuation, says one of the soldiers, by way of explanation. The soldier leave in their jeep, and the young people climb back up the hill to finish eating the still-warm noodles they had just prepared on their camping stove.

Such evacuations are routine, part of a cat-and-mouse game between the army and the young vanguard of settlers living in the hills. Often politically insignificant, their outposts are nonetheless a provocation, especially for the Palestinians whose land they occupy. If the large Israeli settlements are a clenched fist, these small outposts are Israel's little finger, poking ever more deeply into the Palestinian West Bank.

While the parents live comfortably under the red roofs of the established settlements, their children are drawn to the hills. Yedidya says that he has no material needs for things like expensive clothes, an apartment or a car, and that he is leading a life for and with God. The second generation of settlers, radicalized by Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, is more nationalistic and religious than the first. These youths are unwilling to make compromises -- they don't want to trade land for peace.

The government's stance is ambivalent. On the one hand, it regards boys like Yedidya as potential troublemakers. On the other hand, it values them as young pioneers who are merely taking the words of then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon to heart, who said in 1998: "Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements." As a result, the evacuations are half-hearted at best, with the soldiers often looking the other way when sympathetic settlers bring the youths in Shvut Ami food and building materials.

A Laissez-faire Approach

There are more than 100 outposts in the West Bank that are illegal under international and Israeli law, as well as another 120 settlements only considered illegal under international law. The outposts are an alternative means of continuing to build settlements.

In March 1996, the Israeli government made a commitment not to approve any new settlements. Although it has abided by this commitment, it has also taken a laissez-faire approach to the settlers' activities. And they, with government aid in some cases, have expanded their outposts, even as various administrations have announced, from time to time, their intention to halt construction. But those intentions have never been put into practice.

Map: Settlements in the West Bank
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Map: Settlements in the West Bank

Construction is still underway today, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama haggle over whether a building freeze in the settlements should apply for six months or a year, and whether 23 outposts should be evacuated, as was agreed years ago, or all 100 that have built since that agreement was reached. The number of settlers in the West Bank has grown from 200,000 to 300,000 within a decade, not including the settlers in East Jerusalem -- and that in a decade of peace processes, peace conferences, and road maps for peace.

Meanwhile, new outposts are constantly being built, evacuated and rebuilt, in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach. The settler activists seek to dominate the news, keep the army on its toes and mobilize the population. Most of all, however, they are trying to draw attention away from a much greater problem: the established settlements. For every youth on a hill, there are thousands of families in settlements like Maale Adumim, Ariel and Modiin Illit.

The outposts are a buffer of sorts. Small, independent cells deep in Palestinian territory, like Shvut Ami, with Yedidya and his cave, are at the periphery. Then there are outposts that were established by the Yesha Council, the political body representing the settlers in the West Bank. They usually consist of white or gray trailers, and sometimes real houses, some of which even have swimming pools and hot tubs. At the core are the official settlements, complete with town halls and industrial zones. Those settlements have residents who commute to jobs in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Some of their inhabitants have long forgotten that they even live in a settlement.

Obama's Cabin

One of these established settlements is Kedumim. Its red roofs are visible from Shvut Ami, lined up like matchstick heads on the opposite ridge. Kedumim, a legal settlement under Israeli law, is a proper town, complete with a music academy, library and landscaped traffic islands. One of the first settlements to be founded, more than 34 years ago, Kedumim has 5,000 residents today. The words of Simon, Prince of the Maccabees, are engraved in stone at the entrance: "We have neither taken other men's land, neither do we hold that which is other men's: but the inheritance of our fathers, which was for some time unjustly possessed by our enemies."

Yedidya's dream is to turn Shvut Ami into a place like Kedumim.

And Daniela Weiss's dream is to protect Kedumim with a ring of outposts like Shvut Ami.

Weiss, 64, is one of the founders and a former mayor of Kedumim. She greets visitors in her single-family home, decorated with a heavy silver candleholder on the sideboard, dark wood furniture, and a ticking pendulum clock. She is wearing clunky shoes, a long skirt and the headscarf worn by the pious, rolled into a cap. She comes across as a friendly grandmother -- but she is also a radical leader of the settlers. Weiss co-founded Shvut Ami and dozens of other outposts, and some of her children live there. She proudly relates how she fractured a rib during one of the evacuations.

At last, Weiss appealed to the Hilltop Youth to build 11 new outposts. In defiance of opposition from the United States, she even named one of them "Obama's Shack." "These new outposts are the front," she openly admits. "As long as the government has its hands full with them, it can't deal with the other 23."

And as long as these 23 outposts, or perhaps even all 100, are not evacuated, the settlements themselves will not be evacuated. That includes Kedumim, which is so deep inside the West Bank that it would eventually have to be abandoned if a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is ever reached.

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