The Story of a Very Large Cache of Oil, an Orthodox Kibbutz and a Palestinian Village



In better days, other days, before the second year of the intifada and before a high barbed-wire fence separated Kibbutz Merav from the northern West Bank, Hanukkah was a holiday for the residents of the nearby village of Jelabun; Merav’s candle factory was the source of livelihood for a number of Jelabun families. It was a win-win situation.

But two fatal attacks in the area put an end to neighborly relations between the 70 young kibbutz families and the people of Jelabun. A high fence now slices across a 200-meter wide swath between Merav and Jelabun, leaving major parts of the village’s olive grove in the wadi on the Merav side, shut up tight as a drum. Shuri Sholev, a member of Merav’s secretariat, notes that during the last olive harvest, none of the villagers were seen in the grove. They may have been afraid to come across the Border Police at the chinks in the fence that open from time to time.

A few weeks ago, a group of high school students came down from the kibbutz to the olive grove. They harvested the fruit, took it to an area olive press, and returned with their loot–a big barrel of fresh oil. When their parents found out, a members meeting was speedily called. According to Sholev, somebody mentioned the halakhic (Jewish law) ruling by a number of West Bank and Gaza rabbis that settlers may harvest the Palestinian olives. According to those rabbis, the land of Israel belongs only to Israel, and therefore so does its fruit.

Most of the members, however, supported the kibbutz rabbi, Eitan Tzuker, who ruled that the act constituted theft and it was prohibited to enjoy its fruit. The olive press reported the appearance of Jelabun’s olives on its premises to the Border Police, and the surprised lawmen were asked to return the unusual cargo to its rightful owners.

Rabbi Tzuker prefers to keep the incident within the kibbutz, and is not interested in transforming his ruling into a halakhic dispute. Sholev cannot hide his longing for the days, not so long ago, when no one in this Orthodox-Zionist kibbutz would have dreamed that his son would steal the fruit of his neighbor. “Ninety-five percent of the people of Jelabun are good people who are only trying to earn a respectable living,” says Sholev. “It’s a shame that a small group of their young people went to the mosques in Jenin and came back riled up and hostile. It was probably one of them who led the terrorists who killed a young girl here three years ago. Later, two people from Jelabun took part in the murderous attack in Beit She’an on the morning of the Likud primaries.”

The kibbutz members take comfort in the fact that at least one positive thing came out of the incident–a morality tale with a happy end. Who knows–it may even spark debate among Orthodox-Zionists on the question of the attitude to the Palestinians, and encourage rabbis to follow Rabbi Tzuker’s lead. From the point of view of the residents of Jelabun, the story of the very large cruse of oil is a one-time Hanukkah miracle.

No logic

Retired senior Israel Defense Forces officers who accompanied Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli on his tours of the separation fence had difficulty pinpointing the logic from a security point of view of sticking a fence in the middle of the wadi dividing Merav from Jelabun. Maybe the planners had their eyes on the sizable grove. Maybe they assumed the harsh conditions would take their toll, and the people of Jelabun would abandon their land on the other side of the fence.

They certainly could not have known that they would be putting the youth of Merav to a test, or that the parents of Merav would pass it with flying colors.

If Israel transfers all of the northern West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, as senior IDF officers understand, and does not stop at dismantling only four half-empty settlements, as the prime minister has directed, Kibbutz Merav will officially become a frontier settlement. Instead of IDF soldiers, it will be PA police, at best, patrolling the other side of the fence. At worst, the new leadership will be unable to control the street, and the homes of Jelabun will become shooting posts for Islamic Jihad activists.

Naturally, the Palestinians are demanding disengagement of the Gaza Strip variety. That is, they want to take over all authority, security and civilian, over all the Area C sectors of the northern West Bank. In other words, territorial contiguity.

Disengagement from the northern West Bank reminds disengagement planners of the shoot-from-the-hip way in which the separation fence was planned: Sharon fired off an instant plan, then he examined the ramifications and finally he had to fight with the whole world, delay implementation and pour money into changing things.

Bullet-riddled homes

The decision to evacuate the four settlements (Ganim, Kadim, Homesh and Sa-Nur) was not preceded by thorough scrutiny of the infrastructure or registration of land ownership in the area. It looks as if someone glanced at the map of the West Bank and saw that in four settlements around Jenin there were fewer than 1,000 residents, most of whom were “quality of life” settlers who couldn’t find buyers for their villas. Hundreds of bullets had riddled the walls of their homes since the first settlers in the area signed the “Kadim declaration of independence,” which stated that the new settlement was “another stage in the security of the people of Israel in their land.”

A good look at the map of the northern West Bank reveals another two small, weak settlements–Hermesh and Mevo Dotan in the western part of the area–200 settlers sitting on 50 square kilometers. If this area is joined to the large area surrounding the four settlements slated for disengagement, it makes a total of 870 square kilometers, which is 81 percent of the West Bank, populated by around half a million Palestinians.

On the one hand, the evacuation of settlers from the northern West Bank without the transfer of responsibility to the PA, according to the Gaza model, will strengthen the suspicion that it is a feint, part of “Operation Bantustan.” On the other hand, the transfer of Area C to full Palestinian control, including all 14 civilian responsibilities that the Civil Administration (which was not dismantled, as per the Oslo Accords), now hold, requires complex preparations, involving land ownership registration, infrastructure arrangements, etc. If a unity government arises, the Labor Party will not make do this time with being Sharon’s chorus in the debate over this area, twice the size of the Gaza Strip.

It is here that the first coalition crisis is lurking. The Bush administration, with whom a fear of falling out pushed Sharon into the disengagement plan, is studying this issue closely.

What’s the hurry?

A little south of Kibbutz Merav, near the settlements of Tzofin and Alfei Menashe, on the way to Qalqilyah, contractors’ bulldozers are working overtime. Dror Atkes, who follows settlement activity for Peace Now, saw infrastructure work going on about half a kilometer from the furthest house in Tzofin. The bulldozers had started to roll over the olive groves of the nearby Palestinian village of Jayush.

The Defense Ministry said the initiators of the project, a company called Ge’ulat Haaretz, has had a license to develop the land, which is within the area of the settlement’s master plan, for a decade. A representative of the contractor told Bamakom, an association of architects following the routing of the separation fence, that the company plans to built no fewer than 2,100 housing units.

What’s the hurry? Tzofin has 200 residents. Dozens of housing units are for sale in the center of the settlement, and there have been no reports of traffic jams at the real estate offices. Bamakom activists believe the fence is spurring on the effort to half-officially annex areas, on the assumption that the routing of the fence will blur the Green Line. Once again, contractors will entice young couples with the slogan “five minutes from Kfar Sava.”

Peace Now sees the real estate activity as a desire to get a head start on the American team awaiting instructions to go out to the settlements and mark out the limits of their expansion.

AKIVA ELDAR writes for Ha’aretz, where this article originally appeared.

December 11 / 12, 2004

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