Geoffrey Aronson writes: Many years ago I visited the West Bank settlement of Ofra, just east of Ramallah. Ofra, established in 1976 as a “work camp” by Shimon Peres, then minister of defense, is the jewel in the crown of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlement movement.
Soon after taking office in 1977, newly elected Likud prime minister Menachem Begin recognized the outpost for what it was always meant to be — a new, permanent settlement.
The entry of settlers into this region proved to be the vanguard of a settlement blitzkrieg that opened up the West Bank heartland to two generations of tens of thousands of settlers. Their successes set the stage for Ariel Sharon’s 1996 exhortation to “grab the hilltops,” in and around Ofra and throughout the West Bank as a whole, inaugurating the creation of about a hundred new settlement “outposts.”
My host that day was Israel Harel, a founder of Ofra and key player in Gush Emunim. His son Etai is one of the founders of Migron, the oldest and best-established outpost sparked into existence by Sharon, sited on a hilltop a few kilometers south of Ofra adjacent to the new road built to connect the new settlements established along the central mountain spine of the West Bank.
Harel and I climbed the gently ascending route next to his house to a nearby hilltop where the settlement of Amona sits, commanding a glorious view east into Jordan. The hilltop abuts the village of Silwad and has been the site of contentious settlement efforts since Amona’s dwellings were put in place in 1997. After Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the nine permanent houses there had been illegally constructed on private Palestinian land, Ehud Olmert’s government demolished the permanent dwellings in 2006, but the caravans and the settlers remained. Khaled Mishal, the Hamas leader and native son of the village, once told me that he used to do his physics homework atop the then-pristine summit.
On another occasion, during the second intifada, Harel invited me to a Sabbath prayer service at an impromptu site overlooking Road 60, a short walk through the newly fenced off lands belonging to the village of Ein Yabrud, where Benjamin Kahane, son of Meir Kahane, and his wife had been shot and killed in 2000 by Palestinian gunmen. A military watchtower and a prayer tent had been erected at the site, a practical expression of the symbiotic relationship between settlers and the army. The prime agricultural land was now off limits to villagers. Today, a new neighborhood of red-tiled houses, inhabited in defiance of a court order, has been constructed on it.
Settlers like Harel, his son, and their supporters have always insisted that private Palestinian land has never been taken for settlement unless duly paid for. A long and sordid trail of forged bills of sale and powers of attorney suggests otherwise. When I asked Harel if he could accept the theft of private Palestinian property, he said he could not.
The example of Ofra has been repeated throughout the West Bank during what will soon be a half century of settlement beyond Israel’s June 1967 border. According to some objective measures, the settlement enterprise has been extraordinarily successful: Israel has transferred in defiance of unanimous international sentiment more than half a million of its citizens, almost 7 per cent of the state’s total population, to almost 300 distinct locations outside its borders — a feat unmatched in recent history. [Continue reading…]