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Settlers Make Permanent Plans

Two tractors sat at the edges of Ginot Aryeh, slated to be the first of many makeshift, barely-populated West Bank settler outposts soon to be removed in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement plan.” Set up in a rocky field not far from its “mother” settlement of Ofra, the outpost has a population of about 30 religious settlers living in barracks-like mobile homes, or “caravans,” one of which has been turned into a synagogue. There are also tents, outdoor toilets and a jungle gym for kids. Asked what the tractors were for, outpost leader Yossi Vardi replied laconically, “They’ve been clearing the ground to build permanent housing.”

Outside the barbed wire fence surrounding Migron, the jewel in the outposts’ crown with some 150 residents living in neat rows of caravans with little gardens, tractors have plowed vast stretches of earth for the construction of planned cottages. Noting that a dozen or so families were already paying mortgages on their future homes there, Aviva Winter –– at 30 the oldest mother in Migron –– said the government’s plan to tear down the outpost was simply a “mistake.” She smiled and shook her head at the idea that anybody, even Sharon and the Israeli army, could think they were capable of uprooting her growing Jewish community. “We wouldn’t have left a nice apartment in Jerusalem with three kids if we thought we were going to get evacuated, or even if we thought we would have to stay for good in a 40-square-meter caravan,” she said.

On the eve of their confrontation with Sharon, their ex-patron, the settlers aren’t snarling and they aren’t hysterical. Rather, they are so confident of winning that about all they can do is laugh quietly. At the January 11 nighttime demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, the speakers were blustering away, but the 100,000 to 150,000 protesters, most of them teenagers in knitted yarmulkes or long dresses, paid no attention.

It was a lively, buzzing social event, and people were enjoying the tumult too much to listen to fiery speeches.

Sharon, the target of the demonstration, has big plans. He’s committed himself to dispatching the army very soon to start tearing down dozens of outposts, then to move on in a few months to some of the 150 permanent settlements. The idea is to clear settlers and soldiers out of the heart of the Palestinian areas, leaving nearly all the Palestinians enclosed behind fortified security barriers, and thereby separating the two warring sides. The settlers, however, have plans of their own. They intend on stopping Sharon and the army at Ginot Aryeh.

On a cold day last week when the wind was blowing the smoky-sweet aroma of incinerated Palestinian garbage across the West Bank hills, a van-load of Dutch and Belgian evangelical Christians visiting Israel made a high-spirited solidarity stop to the outpost, located some three miles east of Ramallah. “Shalom,” tour-group leader Bert Woudwijk called out to the sleepy-looking young man answering the knock at his caravan door. “Don’t leave this place. God gave you this land,” Woudwijk urged him, and the earnestly grinning delegation moved on.

At the door was Oren Rund, 23, an engineering student and security guard who left his family’s home in Ofra for the outpost right after his younger brother Erez was killed by Palestinians. The killings of settlers and building of outposts go together. Ginot Aryeh was built three years ago, immediately after the murder of Ofra resident Aryeh Hershowitz. Off the highway near Ofra is the outpost Givat Assaf, named for Hershkowitz’s son Assaf, who was killed three months after his father. Nearby is a tall guard tower topped by an Israeli flag marking Givat Tal Binyamin, the outpost named for intifada victims Binyamin Kahane and his wife Talia, the son and daughter-in-law of slain Kach leader Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Asked what he thought of Sharon’s plans to erase Ginot Aryeh, Rund said matter-of-factly that it was impossible. “They don’t have the manpower,” he said, explaining that the army demolition brigade would be met by several thousand settlers who would block their path.

On a bulletin board outside the administrative office in Ofra, a notice carries the slogan, “Ginot Aryeh — for all of us, this is the front.”

Referring to the outpost as “a neighborhood of Ofra,” the notice warns that the army is mobilizing in “massive” proportions to come tear it down. “This can be prevented only if you and all of us are there,” the notice reads. Settlement manager Meir Nahlieli, a husky fellow in jeans and hiking boots, is ready to answer the call. “I’ll sit in front of bulldozers, no problem. Let four soldiers come and carry me away.”

Asked what he and his neighbors at Ginot Aryeh would do if thousands of determined settlers somehow failed to stop the army’s cranes and bulldozers from destroying the place, Rund replied, “Then a week afterward we’ll come back.”

Dror Etkes, who monitors settlement activity for Peace Now, takes Rund at his word. In the last year, army demolition crews met fierce settler resistance at three outposts: Havat Gilad, Havat Ma’on and Mitzpe Yitzhar. At all three, settlers came back soon afterward and moved into freshly-arrived caravans, Etkes noted. All three are up and running today. “Experience tells us that unless something changes radically, the same thing is going to happen this time around,” he said.

Outpost settlers — who number between 1,000 and 1,500, according to Etkes — are convinced Sharon came up with the disengagement plan only because he couldn’t stand up to pressure from the Bush administration. No argument for removing the outposts makes a dent in their certainty. They insist that every outpost is legal, that the government and army approved each one, and that the only violation of the law here is Sharon’s attempt to destroy their homes. (The settler movement’s current Supreme Court challenge to the dismantling of Ginot Aryeh has delayed its destruction by two weeks.)

They promise that the resistance will be non-violent — although at past outpost demolitions many “hilltop youth” duked it out with soldiers and police, throwing stones and slashing the tires of security vehicles. But they are fully prepared to stand, or lie down, in the way of the Israeli army’s attempt to carry out an order. “It doesn’t bother me, because Sharon is giving in to terror,” explained Mindy Tsur, 29, a Schenectady, N.Y.-born mother of five at Migron.

The settlers seem unfazed by years of opinion polls consistently showing that the Israeli people are against them, that at least two-thirds of the general public favors uprooting isolated settlements — to say nothing of allegedly illegal outposts. “That’s not the people’s true opinion, that’s the media telling them what to think,” said Tsur.

Added Ginot Aryeh leader Vardi, who heads a religious nationalist youth movement and has advised former Prime Minister Ehud Barak on settlement affairs: “I don’t think the people of Israel really understand what’s going on here. They think we’re living in the casbah in the middle of Nablus, next to the muezzin. What is an ‘outpost,’ anyway? We feel we are the emissaries of the people of Israel, and that what we’re doing is for them.”

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