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A Home of Our Own
Empire of the Settlements
by ROB ESHELMAN

The ten-agorot coin has a map on it. Take a close look though and the map is not of Israel contained within its 1967 boarders. It is a map of a nation extending from the Nile River in the east to the Euphrates River in the west. This is "Eretz Yisrael" which includes all of Jordan and parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Along the left curve of the coin the word "Israel" appears in Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

I’m told that sometimes when an Israeli home or road is being constructed these coins are dropped in the ground. Thus, the coin is both a reminder during every economic exchange of a people’s "homeland", and insurance that future generations will know whose land we are standing on.

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Dror Etkes is the coordinator for the Settlement Watch program of the left-Zionist organization Peace Now. Founded by Israeli Defense Force soldiers in 1978, Peace Now leads tours for journalists of settlement outposts in the West Bank. According to Dror the goal of these tours, "is to close the gap between what the government says and what is actually happening."

On a bright, warm Saturday morning in Jerusalem, I meet Dror and a hand-full of other international journalists in a parking lot behind a 24-hour gas station to tour two settlement outposts in the West Bank, north of Ramallah.

Route 60 is the major North-South highway connecting the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin. Along a section of Route 60, called the Ramallah by-pass road, most settlement construction took place from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s.

According to Peace Now, 230,000 Israelis are currently living in the occupied territories in 145 settlements. Some Palestinian organizations put the figure at closer to half a million by including areas, such as around Jerusalem, annexed by Israel following the 1967 war. 60% of these settlements have been built since Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February 2001.

The huge number of Israeli settlers alarms many Israeli organizations and is viewed as an incitement to many Palestinians. The Yesha Council, an organization spearheading the return of Jews to their historic homeland in "Eretz Yisrael", however, views this number with emphatic pride, proclaiming on its website that, "in the near twenty five years since the establishment of the Yesha Council, the population of Yesha (Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza) has grown from less than 3,000 to nearly 225,000 and the number continues to grow annually."

Just north of Jerusalem along Route 60, our caravan of four vehicles passes the settlement of Migron. The largest post-2001 outpost within the West Bank, Migron is home to 35 families. Little more than a few boxy trailer homes, it started in 1998 with a cell phone antenna. However, as Dror is quick to point out, many outposts begin as seemingly benign utility infrastructure projects. "If you have an antenna, you need a guard to protect the antenna." Inevitably, settlers follow and the Israeli conquest of the West Bank has a new base.

Israel has constructed a massive1200 kilometer road system connecting these settlements within the West Bank. "Pre-Intifada, the occupation was more sophisticated," Dror tells me while driving the lead van in our caravan. "This was the settlement and bypass road construction phase. Now it’s more militarized."

Settlement roads serve a duel purpose. Built primarily during the 1990s, they allow settlers to commute in and out of the West Bank without having to encounter Palestinian villages or cities. They also encircle and isolate Palestinians from land which they’ve worked for generations, creating Bantustans–cantons similar to the South African government’s establishment of limited self-rule in some villages for blacks.

As we turn off of Route 60 about 35 kilometers north of Jerusalem, Dror says that despite leading these tours many times, you never quite know what to expect when trying to gain entry into a Jewish settlement. The young private security guard who greets us at the small guard post just off the highway cuts to the chase pretty quickly, though. "Are there any Arabs with you", he asks matter-of-factly. When we assure him that there are in fact no Arabs with us, we gain entry to Eli, home to 3000 Israeli settlers and the location of a settlement outpost spotted just two days ago.

Dror found the new outpost, which lies just south of Eli, flying over the West Bank in a small Cessna aircraft. Periodically Dror and other staff from Peace Now fly over areas of the occupied territories combing the hilltops for the establishment of new settlement outposts.

Our caravan makes its ascent to the new outpost on a barely traversable road cut into the side of a few rolling hills. Driving along this rocky and deeply rutted path, I get the feeling that the road may slide off the side of the hill at any moment. Through the thick clouds of dust which billow out from beneath our vehicles, I spot two private security trucks shadowing us not far behind.

Finally making it to the top of the hill we spot two structures. The first is nothing more than a neglected shipping container. Mostly rusted, its large metal doors sit open, exposing the container’s dark internal void. The other structure, a mobile-style home, looks as though if it had a spine it would be broken. Twisted and dilapidated, the uninhabited rectangle looks more like it has been abandoned rather than waiting to be someone’s home.

This outpost could be a "dummy". For negotiating purposes, some settlers establish "dummy" or uninhabited outposts, which they will allow to be dismantled so that inhabited outposts, remain intact. This is a cleaver negotiating strategy based on knowledge that the Israeli government will make little effort to evict settlers in the West Bank.

On a hilltop overlooking our location the passengers of the two security trucks peer at us through binoculars.

Across the valley from Eli is Haroe, a settlement established one-year ago. Since that time, there hasn’t been anyone living here, but soon that is clearly going to change. A small group of workers is constructing the foundations for what appears to be at least ten homes. A poll-digging machine sits idle by the side of the road leading into the burgeoning settlement. Newly installed power lines make the important connection to the Israeli power grid. This is not a "dummy" and is hardly the scene of Israeli efforts to comply with international agreements requiring the dismantlement of post-2001 outposts.

Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power "shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Israel ratified the document in 1951. Also, the current roadmap, authored by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, requires that the government of Israel "immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001." There has been no let up, however, in Israeli government support for construction activity in the West Bank and Gaza as new settlements continuing to appear.

Israel however is not merely turning a blind eye to this construction. In fact, Dror characterizes Israeli government support for settlement activity as "massive". Support comes in the form of mortgage subsidies for home purchases and private enterprise construction. Social workers and teachers are given benefit packages more comprehensive than their peers who live in Israel. The most substantial example of Israeli support for settlement activity may be the 5% income tax reduction for Israelis who settle in the West Bank. "The West Bank is the only place where Israelis have a welfare state," says Dror.

On our return trip to Jerusalem we bounce along more rough roads–a settlement to our left, a small military base to our right. I ask Dror what he makes of the highly publicized dismantlement of a few outposts following the Aqaba meeting attended by Ariel Sharon, Abu Mazen, George Bush, and King Abdullah of Jordan. He views the dismantlement of these outposts as "a mockery". He says, "It is meant to deceive the Israeli public by making it appear something is happening when it’s not."

Gideon Levy, in an editorial in the August 4th edition of Haaretz, commented that the "small measures" taken recently by the Israeli government "were not aimed at the Palestinians". They were taken, "to curry favor with the president (Bush). The point was not to make conditions easier for the Palestinians, but to facilitate the conditions for Sharon’s meeting with Bush."

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The fallacy of Israeli efforts to achieve comprehensive peace with the Palestinian population and the ideological support that exists within the highest levels of the Israeli government for continued settlement activity became even more apparent a few days after our tour. The Israeli Defense Forces announced that additional settlement outposts were to be dismantled.

On August 4th, residents of Beit El East began to dismantle their small outpost. The caravans however were moved only a short distance away to join 20 other caravans previously in place at an outpost on Mount Artis. The broker of the deal to dismantle Beit El East according to Haaretz was, "MK Uri Ariel (National Union Party), the former secretary general of Yesha Council of Jewish settlements and head of the Beit El local council."

ROB ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist based in Palestine. He can be e-mailed at robeshelman@hotmail.com.