MEVASSERET ADUMIM, West Bank (JTA) – Her heart pounding, the 15-year-old girl with a long, honey-colored braid down her back scrambled down the steep hillside in the black of night, running from police who had swarmed in to evacuate her and others who had come to set up an illegal settlement outpost.
It was a scene that has become familiar in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between youths determined to spread Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the police charged with stopping them.
“You feel like you are in a suspense movie, and of course there are some frightening moments, but you feel that God is with you,” said the teenager, who would identify herself only as Ayana.
She and a group of classmates managed to elude the police by finding a hiding place among the rocks. They spent the night on the hill, which they call Mevasseret Adumim.
“If we want the land to be ours, then we have to come and settle it. This is the first step toward what I hope will one day be a community here,” Ayana said, looking out at the sloping, sand-colored hills across from Ma’ale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank located just a few miles outside of Jerusalem.
Ayana and her comrades were the foot soldiers in a campaign launched by a splinter settler group to take over nine hilltops across the West Bank over Chanukah. Overall there are some 100 illegal outposts across the West Bank.
This one, its supporters say, is meant to ensure neighboring Ma’ale Adumim is expanded into an area called E-1 – a controversial swath of land many say cuts off the northern and southern parts of the West Bank.
If this land is annexed by Israel – most Israelis expect Ma’ale Adumim to become part of Israel in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians – Palestinians say their state could not be contiguous.
These settlement outposts have been ongoing thorns in the side of successive Israeli governments, which are under international pressure to dismantle them but often have lacked the political will to do so.
Despite promises to deal harshly and promptly with those who establish the illegal outposts, little legal action is actually taken against them.
The ambiguity of Israel’s policy toward these outposts was highlighted at a September meeting of the government committee charged with dealing with them.
“Everything was done with the government’s permission, even if it was with a wink, therefore everything is legal,” Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, was quoted as saying. “You can’t pave roads and transfer water and electricity lines in the dead of night. It is inconceivable that today people are suddenly denying this.”
Foreign Minister Tzipi Linvi said a government commitment to remove the outposts was not up for debate.
Israeli human rights activists long have complained that settlers act with impunity in the West Bank.
“It’s clear that if Palestinians seized land that was not theirs, they would not be allowed to stay for more than five minutes, but the approach to settler youth is very different,” said Lior Yavne, director of research for Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group. “Basically the law enforcement system is nonexistent when it comes to handling repeated offenses related to settlers taking over land.”
In the past, what would begin as a small cluster of tents or trailers often evolved into de facto settlements with homes, fields and even running water and electricity. Sometimes they would be set up by the government itself.
In recent years, however, the mainstream settler movement, represented by the Yesha Council, has begun focusing more on preserving existing settlements than creating new ones, given the increasingly likelihood of a future Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
In Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s vision, the larger settlement blocs would be annexed to Israel.
As a result, a new settler organization called the Land of Israel Faithful has set out to continue occupying as many hilltops as possible – specifically ones near existing settlements, so the existing settlements grow to other hilltops.
Headed by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the American-born founder of the current Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, members of the Land of Israel Faithful say they hope these settlements will grow and foil any possible future peace deal with the Palestinians.
The former mayor of the Jewish West Bank settlement of Kedumim, Daniella Weiss, who is on the group’s board, said that in meetings at homes and hilltops across the West Bank, people of all ages are coming together to strategize on how to best stake out what they see as their biblical birthright.
Small donations fund their work, which includes advertising and buying equipment such as generators. Fellow settlers are recruited to help bring food, water and logistical support to those who set up the outposts.
“Politics are very much influenced by what we, the settler movement, do on the land,” Weiss said. “With our building more outposts and more settlements, we prevent the government from fulfilling the idea of giving away territories.”
Until about four years ago, the outpost activity was more intense, according to Dror Etkes, the former director of a Peace Now settlement-monitoring project. But now, with a shift in political direction by both the government and the settler leadership, as well as more information and media scrutiny of the outposts, the movement to build them has become more one of protest than of successfully establishing “facts on the ground.”
Until about 2003, “there were tractors and bulldozers and phones and water,” Etkes said. By contrast, “what we are seeing today is more political.”
Etkes noted that most of the outpost activity now is conducted during school vacations, when high school students can be called upon to camp out with sleeping bags and boxes of supplies until they are evacuated by the police. Hence this latest Chanukah initiative.
The youth who settle the outposts say they are not deterred by the illegality of their actions.
“There is a clear commandment to settle the Land of Israel according to the Torah. It has been ours since the time of Abraham, so we don’t need permission,” said David, 17, his kipah covered partially by a black wool hat.
Others say they have lost faith in the state, especially after the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, when some 9,000 Jews were pulled out of Gaza’s Jewish towns, many by force.
“The police are not with us; they are against Torah and have forgotten the laws of Judaism,” Ayana said before sitting down on a blanket with her friends, waiting until the police returned.