Settlers: ‘We’re Helpless’


Barkan, West Bank — After Israel lifted a 10-month settlement construction freeze at the end of September, Koby Kalabrino hesitated. Was it safe to start building a new four-bedroom home or would Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agree to a moratorium extension requested by the U.S. to keep peace talks with the Palestinians going?

But when talks with the U.S. appeared to stall in October, Kalabrino gave builders a green light in the hope that he could finish the foundations and avoid getting caught by a new freeze on housing starts. He guessed wrong.

On Tuesday, with Israel’s security cabinet expected to narrowly approve a three-month moratorium that would retroactively halt work on his home, Kalabrino estimated losses at $40,000 in ruined building materials.

“We hurried to lay make the foundations and the floor. We thought we wouldn’t get caught like the previous time,” said Kalabrino, who has been living in a mobile home with his wife Mali and their three children waiting for the house to be built. “We ran too fast for nothing.”

Even though there has been a wave of housing starts in the West Bank settlements in the 90 days that has nearly made up for the lost time of the moratorium, the settlers find themselves staring down another period of limbo.

Netanyahu’s promise to the settlers of a onetime building freeze has turned out to be a mirage, replaced by the reality that the government has put their lives on hold until further notice yet again.

Despite media reports of a U.S. commitment that the new building moratorium would be the final one, few settlers believe there won’t be pressure for a new extension if the Palestinians threaten again to pull out of talks at the end of 90 days.

“If they said 10 months ago that this [freeze] would be it, and now they’re talking about another freeze, you don’t know where it will end. I don’t believe Bibi that this will be the last three months,” said Robert Hankin, a 30-year-old electrical engineer, who has been living in Barkan with his in-laws during the last freeze. “I don’t know how to deal with this. We’re helpless.”

Though they acknowledged that Netanyahu had obtained important military hardware and a valuable commitment to veto Palestinian declarations of statehood at the United Nations, settlers couldn’t escape the conclusion that their homes had been used as bargaining chips for aid that had previously been available unconditionally.

If passed, the deal would represent a “fundamental collapse of our government’s integrity and national resilience,” read a statement from the Yesha Council, the umbrella settler leadership. “The Israeli leadership should never let its citizens become pawns to the whims of the international community.”

In the final days before the vote, settler leaders were lobbying and pressuring the potential swing votes in Netanyahu’s 15-member security cabinet.

“The freeze is Shas’ Day of Reckoning,” declared settlement posters targeting the fervently Orthodox Shas party, whose leader, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, publicly opposed an extension of the freeze in August. Now, like the prime minister, Yishai has backed off.

“Bibi Netanyahu is a savvy politician. He’s very wise in maneuvering and manipulating relationships to retain power,” said David Ha’ivri, a settler spokesman affiliated with the Shomron Regional Council, which represents settlers in the northern West Bank. “And he’s a gifted speaker with a strong message. But when it comes down to actual leadership, he hasn’t always proven to be a strong leader. He has an opportunity to go down as a great leader, or he could come out as a weak leader and lose his place history.”

Though there were isolated clashes between settlers and government representatives enforcing stop-work orders last year, resistance is likely to be more determined this year because residents are angrier at the government, he said.

“It will be much more difficult for the Yesha [settler] leadership to restrain people,” Ha’ivri said. “No one has anything positive to show for all the months of the building freeze.”

Amid speculation that the sides are going to begin discussing borders during the three-month freeze, a pair of 16-year-old religious high school students hoped for Messianic intervention that might leave their homes in the remote settlement of Peduel from being severed from Israel. That stirred memories of the Gaza evacuation.

“I remember my mother sitting in front of the television crying and waiting for the Messiah to come,” said one. “But nothing happened.”

Back in Barkan, a settlement founded by the secular right-wing Beitar movement, settlement manager Shmuel Eldad said he was not surprised that President Barack Obama had convinced Netanyahu to relent on the freeze. “I understand Netanyahu, when someone like Obama pressures you, what do you expect? Obama is behaving recklessly.”

A project to build 62 new homes in a new neighborhood of Barkan — marketed as “Barkan Opposite the Sea” — is in jeopardy once again. In the six weeks since the end of the freeze, work on about five houses has begun while bulldozers clear away rocks and boulders for new plots.

“Not a stone was moved during the freeze,” Eldad said.

When asked about the significance of a freeze extension, Eldad declined to comment before getting confirmation of exactly how long it would be and what it would cover.

“These are the questions to ask [Obama]. He is the landlord,” he said. “We are living in a banana republic that is run by the U.S.”

For Koby Kalabrino, the prospect of a new period of uncertainty and financial losses are taking its toll. A security professional who is a veteran of the Shin Bet and the Lebanon War, he said he was once ready to sacrifice his life for the country.

“Now, after what I’ve been going through, things are different,” he said, admitting that he has considered leaving the settlements altogether. “The other option is to continue building, sell the house and emigrate from the country.”