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Tiny Israeli Outposts Loom Large on Mideast Road Map

At enclaves Sharon vows to remove, residents say they won't be uprooted without a fight.

June 06, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

GIVAT ASSAF, West Bank — The community looks almost too insubstantial to be a bone of contention -- just 11 trailers and a few electrical poles strewn across a rocky hilltop deep in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank.

But even barren hilltops are contested in the West Bank.

It is places like this Jewish outpost that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has pledged to remove as the first Israeli step in the "road map" to peace designed to end the conflict with the Palestinians.

Givat Assaf is just one of the unauthorized settlement outposts, built since March 2001, that are scattered along the stony crests of hills, in the Judean desert and in Hebron, among other places. Like almost everything in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the exact number is disputed, ranging from a handful to more than 100, depending on the politics of the person doing the counting.

The outposts are not to be confused with the larger and far more established "settlements" authorized by the Israeli government. Some of those have thousands of residents and considerable infrastructure -- stores, schools, gas stations and restaurants. Their fate is one of the key issues to be negotiated later.

Outposts vary from a single person living part time at a site to as many as 40 families. They are embryonic settlements, the first signal that Jews plan to seize and settle a particular piece of land. Putting down stakes has become the main method by which Israel has expanded its population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Dismantling even the outposts will be difficult. Former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer tried to uproot a handful of outposts amid great controversy in 2002, but some of those have been repopulated.

The settlers, who number more than 225,000, represent a powerful political constituency and attempts to evict them are likely to put Sharon's government at risk.

Sharon is in a particularly difficult position because for years he was one of the strongest proponents of the settler movement. It is Sharon who made famous the phrase "facts on the ground" to describe putting a settlement in the West Bank to make it difficult to strike a deal to hand over land to the Palestinians.

Already, even with only thinly populated outposts under discussion, Sharon is encountering resistance to the idea from the religious political parties, which form a cornerstone of his coalition, as well as disapproval from some members of his Likud Party.

"I call upon the people of Israel and to all the young as Ariel Sharon once called on [them]: Go to the hills, take over the hills, they are our home," said Yehiel Hazan, a Likud member, speaking at a rally Wednesday by conservative religious groups.

The outposts are viewed by Palestinians as a deliberate land grab designed to shrink their territory and prevent them from having lands, villages and towns that are contiguous. Some critics contend that Sharon's agreement to dismantle the outposts is a hollow gesture because they proliferated under his government.

For those who live in these unauthorized communities, the idea of moving is inconceivable.

"We need to be here," said Ahuviel Nizri, 21, a soft-spoken, bearded student at a yeshiva, or religious university, who lives full time in Givat Assaf with his wife and 4-month-old son.

"We believe this land is ours. It's written in the Bible that it is ours, and it's hard to argue with the Bible."

Right off the intersection of a highway along one of the main roads to the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Givat Assaf is several miles from the nearest authorized settlement, but the area is far from deserted. Arab villages, recognizable by the minarets of the mosques used to call worshipers to prayer, dot the hillsides. At midday, except for two women hanging clothes to dry in the desert sun, no one is in Givat Assaf, because there is neither employment nor schools.

With its 11 families, Givat Assaf is similar to many outposts in that it is populated entirely by young families and single people, most of them with a fervent religious conviction about their right to the land.

Many people in the outposts say they like to feel close to nature and eschew city life even though they are at constant risk of attack by angry Palestinians and they must drive miles for any services or amenities.

Givat Assaf is typical in that it was established for ideological reasons, complete with elements of retribution and redemption. It was founded two years ago as a living memorial to Assaf Hershkowitz, a 30-year-old settler who was on his way to his job working for a fencing contractor when his van was fired on by a Palestinian gunman near the intersection where the outpost is now located. His death came just three months after his father was killed in a similar incident on the same road.

For Nizri and others who live there, some of whom were friends of Hershkowitz, founding the outpost was a way to pay tribute to his memory, but it was also something else: "It was an act of revenge," Nizri said.

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