On West Bank, Fighting An ‘Evil Decree’ As Settlement Freeze Imposed


Elkana, West Bank — Jewish settlers are embarking on a campaign of civil disobedience, court cases and lobbying to counter a new government policy to curb settlement activity for 10 months as a peace process gesture.

Backed by the settler leadership, residents blocked building inspectors from the military Civil Administration at the entrance of some towns on Tuesday after showing no resistance on Monday.
But even though they are quickly losing confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they aren’t ready to take on his government.

Aliza Herbst, a spokeswoman for the settler Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, said that while the prime minister “turned his back on his voters” with the “illegitimate” freeze, there is hope Netanyahu’s colleagues from the Likud party will prompt him to “straighten up and fly right.”

“He was given the gift of a second chance, and a third chance won’t happen,” she said.

Settler activist David Ha’ivri called on right-wing members of Netanyahu’s coalition to force an about face.

“It’s time for the nationalist elements of the government to show leadership,” he said. “If they don’t, we will have a conflict” and settler leaders will mobilize “the grass roots.”

In the settlement of Elkana on Monday, a giant drill ground and spewed forth earth, as a Palestinian building crew laid the foundations of a future home. That’s exactly the type of building activity that has become illegal under Netanyahu’s policy, according to Civil Administration spokesperson Guy Inbar.
But Yishayahu Shlomovitch, who moved into the half-finished “Ramat Elkana”’ neighborhood in this Jewish settlement about a year ago, looked on in approval. Asked whether the settlement should comply with inspectors from the Civil Administration who were distributing injunction orders at that moment, Shlomovitch said he wasn’t taking it very seriously.

“I didn’t even think of that,” said Shlomovitch, himself a building inspector from the nearby city of Petach Tikvah. “We won’t follow orders. The government can say whatever it wants. We will continue to build, with God’s help.”

The new villas in the neighborhood are modern with clean right angles and earth tones, a stark departure from the white stucco and red-roofed rows of bungalows. With close proximity to the cities of central Israel and the reduced risk of evacuation on the western side of the security barrier, settlements like Elkana are in high demand among upper-middle-class settlers.

Shlomovitch added that he hoped Netanyahu’s building slowdown was a “strategic” move that would help the U.S. better confront Iran. The freeze, he said, was not a signal of a political conversion reminiscent of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But Shimon Cohen, a project manager for several houses under construction in the same neighborhood sounded more alarmed at Netanyahu’s move.

“It’s undemocratic. Nobody passed it,” said Cohen, himself a resident of a nearby settlement. “Something like that needs to be done through a referendum.”

Juggling two mobile phones, Cohen got updates in Arabic from construction employees on the movement of the inspectors. The inspectors were reportedly driving a white jeep and escorted by border police, they said.

Driving through Ramat Elkana and the neighboring settlement of Beit Ariyeh, Cohen pointed out which building sites would be spared and which would probably be shut down.

He said that he spent the last week pushing building crews to rush the foundation work on six houses. “Last week we did a lot of foundation work to put off the evil decree,” he said. “Wherever there is foundation work, we won’t have to stop.”

Indeed, within a few minutes the foundation drill in Ramat Elkana had stopped working and disappeared. The building site was silent. The Civil Administration said that it issued 64 stop-work orders over the first two days of enforcing the ban.

The decision has kicked up resistance from a growing insurgency in Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Bemoaning the freeze, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat said, “We’ve fallen on a terrible administration.”

The settlement freeze is aggravating the ideological fault line

While his rejection of President Barack Obama’s call for a comprehensive settlement freeze sparked the most public Israel-U.S. spat in two decades earlier this year, Netanyahu’s announcement last week of a slowdown was hailed by U.S. Envoy George Mitchell, and earlier Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But latest evidence of Netanyahu’s pragmatism hasn’t answered questions about whether the move is meant simply to shift pressure onto Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for refusing negotiations, or whether it’s a signal the prime minister is willing to cut a landmark peace deal.

Knesset Member Danny Danon has vowed to convene the Likud Central Committee for Netanyahu to rescind the decision.

At the same time the freeze is winning cautious praise from the Israeli left.

“It is a dramatic decision,” said Hagit Ofran, head of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch division. “It’s more than any previous decision on a settlement freeze, including Yitzchak Rabin.”

While she said it is still early to tell how serious Netanyahu is about enforcing the freeze, Ofran predicted that Israel’s government would lose credibility at home and abroad if it failed to enforce the freeze.
The settlement watchdog group is planning to take a new round of aerial photos of the West Bank to check up on enforcement in the next couple of months. Ofran accused settlers of attempting to fake completion of foundation work. She estimated that the 3,000 housing units not covered by the freeze refer to units already beyond the stage of foundation work.

“Skeptics of Netanyahu’s move should pay attention to the genuine outrage of the settlers,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center’s Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. “They understand what apparently the Palestinians and the international community does not — which is that the freeze is unprecedented and will seriously affect settlement growth. It means there will be no building starts next year.”

Three miles northwest of Elkana, the settlement of Oranit hugs the snaking but invisible Green Line border with Israel proper. From the rooftops of many houses the skyline of Tel Aviv looms large. The Israeli Arab town of Kufr Qassem seems a stone’s throw away.

Residents of Oranit are secular and gravitate toward the Israeli center. They bristle at the suggestion that they too are settlers. In Oranit, the Civil Administration shut down work on new neighborhoods where about 500 units were to be built.

Work foreman Moshe Halfon complained that the freeze cost him just over $25,000 in fees for heavy machinery that now lay silent after a military inspector served him with the order. An administrative secretary in the Oranit town council said families who buy in the neighborhoods are stuck between mortgage payments on their new homes and rent on temporary dwelling.

Yoni Ariel, a two-year resident of secular Oranit, and a Labor party supporter, said the Obama administration’s approach to the settlement freeze had backfired. By demanding a freeze throughout the West Bank, Netanyahu had united all walks of settlers together rather than exploiting the numerous divisions among the settlers.

“We are being forced to ally ourselves with the right wing, which is the last place we want to be,” he said. “What is being achieved here?”