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Israel's 'hilltop youth' are settling in

Their illegal outposts in the West Bank are muddling peace efforts.

February 18, 2008|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

GIVAT HAOR OUTPOST, WEST BANK — It was a festive night for the teenage squatters in this renegade hilltop camp. A rabbi was on his way, and they were cranking up a generator, stringing light bulbs and arranging benches, turning what had been a Palestinian family's barn into a synagogue.

Suddenly the group fell silent. An Israeli soldier and a policeman had trudged up the slope and were demanding to know who was in charge. No one would tell them.

After a few tense minutes, the uniformed intruders left. The "hilltop youth" had prevailed again.

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders try to end decades of conflict, this outpost and other unauthorized Jewish settlements have become a battle line between the Israeli government and a settler movement unwilling to give up any part of the West Bank.

Under commitments made to President Bush at a November peace conference, Israel is supposed to dismantle about 50 outposts as a first step in negotiations on definitive borders and other terms of a final accord. Instead of vanishing, however, the outposts are growing, swollen by a loose-knit group of young second-generation settlers believed to number in the hundreds.

Since this outpost was set up in December, Israel's paramilitary border police have chased away its occupants at least a dozen times, but never for long. "They come up the hill, we go down the hill, we come back two hours later," said Yaakov Cohen, 17, shrugging off the timid evictions.

About 100 outposts, in addition to 126 settlements formally authorized by Israel, occupy West Bank land the Palestinians seek for a future state. Some of the bigger outposts have a few hundred residents each and de facto government support in the form of running water, electricity, paved streets and schools.

Bush pressed the issue last month after his motorcade passed this outpost during a visit to the region.

"The agreement was, 'Get rid of outposts, illegal outposts,' and they ought to go," he said at a Jerusalem news conference. Standing beside him, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert replied: "This was discussed. . . . We ought to fulfill our commitments, and we will."

But that resolve has provoked new land invasions by the hilltop youth, guided by a belief that the Torah commands Jews to settle all of biblical Israel no matter what modern Israel's elected leaders say.

Since the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., young Israelis have set up or expanded nine outposts, according to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group critical of the settlements.

The outpost here, whose Hebrew name means "Hill of Light," is populated by about 40 boys and girls who attend religious high schools in nearby settlements during the day. At night they climb the hill, cook by campfire and sleep on mattresses in a complex of farm buildings, taking care to maintain a daily presence.

They say they're determined to outlast the police and build a viable community on the hilltop, just north of Ramallah.

"It's not Bush's decision. He isn't the landlord," Cohen said. "Neither is Olmert."

"God is the landlord," the teenager insisted.

The titled owner is a Palestinian American family -- the Khalaf brothers and a cousin, two living nearby in the West Bank and two in Ohio. The Jewish youths occupied the seven-acre farm in December, claiming it had been abandoned; the Khalafs say the land was temporarily unattended between olive seasons.

Israeli police officials have authenticated the Khalafs' land title but failed to make good on a promise in December that the settlers would be removed from the farm.

When three Khalaf men tried to visit their property more recently, they were turned back by the Israeli army, which had declared it a closed military zone to prevent any violence between settlers and Palestinians.

"But the settlers are still there," complained Midian Khalaf, 40, a Cleveland grocer, pointing to an Israeli flag over the farm that is visible from his family's West Bank home in Al Birah. "The longer they stay, the more likely their outpost will become permanent."

Many full-fledged settlements started exactly this way, as camps or small clusters of trailers. Today, 282,200 Jews are settled in suburban-style communities funded by the Israeli government on West Bank land captured in the 1967 Middle East War.

Most governments consider all Jewish settlements in the West Bank a violation of international law, which forbids populating land seized in war. Palestinian leaders say the settlements are a major obstacle to peace.

Israel asserts that the West Bank is disputed territory and that the settlements are legal.

Olmert has nonetheless pledged to dismantle unauthorized outposts while trying to negotiate border adjustments that would enclose the biggest settlements on the Israeli side. He has public support; 53% of Israelis polled by Tel Aviv University in December favor such a course.

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