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At West Bank Outposts, Settlers Prepare to Meet Army Bulldozers

June 11, 2003
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“This is the real war,” said Itai Zar, the founder and spiritual leader of Gilad’s Farm, a settlement outpost just over the hill from Nablus in the West Bank.

It was 4 a.m. on Tuesday. An orange half moon had dropped behind the Tel Aviv skyline to the west and a dense fog blanketed the hill.

The flesh on Zar’s cherubic face sagged. It was partly from defeat 10 outposts had been dismantled by Israeli soldiers Sunday, and five more were slated to be torn down and partly from a keen sense of betrayal that weighed on the young leader.

Referring to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to begin the immediate evacuation of 94 settlement outposts, most of them unpopulated, Zar pledged that settlers would pour all their resources into preventing “this betrayal of the land.”

“Unfortunately,” one of Zar’s cohorts said, Sharon “is more afraid of President Bush than of God Almighty, and that is a problem.”

The man was speaking in the cramped tent that serves as the Zar family home. Outside, dozens of young men, some swaddled in Jewish prayer shawls against the cold, had decamped. They pulled out their guitars, sleeping bags and prayer books and prepared to “guard the community.”

Gilad’s Farm, named after Zar’s brother Gilad, who was shot dead by Palestinian terrorists in an ambush not far from the outpost two years ago Sunday, is the nexus of the settlers’ feverish campaign to thwart the evacuation, planned for this week, of four populated outposts and one abandoned one.

Some zealous youths hitchhiked to the outpost’s lonely hilltop. Others drove dented sedans plastered with bumper stickers reading “No Arabs, no terror” into the encampment, which was eerily lit by floodlights and campfires obscured by fog.

On Tuesday evening, Supreme Court justices met to deliberate on the demolition of Gilad’s Farm, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported.

The petition presented to the court includes documents attempting to prove that members of the Zar family legally own the land and live there under official authorization. In response, the state claimed that the family does not own the land.

Across the northern West Bank, hundreds of settlers converged on outposts to block the army from demolishing them. The evacuation effort, dubbed Operation Naked Hilltop, could last for several days.

The evacuations were hailed by Washington, which has demanded that Israel demolish the outposts under the “road map” peace plan. But Palestinian officials greeted the step with derision, Ha’aretz reported.

“This is a theatrical and insignificant step,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Gilad’s Farm — a clump of a half-dozen semi-permanent structures planted on the bald hilltop — had a carnival feel in the early hours of Tuesday. An unsuspecting bystander — if there is such a thing regarding such a controversial issue — might have mistaken it for a hippie youth festival.

Wide-eyed youth, some barely in their teens, stalked the camp, glowing with excitement. The more veteran activists sat up late into the night under a blanket of stars, their voices screeching songs by the campfires.

Some boys used the lid of an old paint bucket as a Frisbee, flinging it at each other in the dim light.

The army has evacuated Gilad’s Farm four times in recent years, but each time the settlers have rebuilt it. The most recent demolition was in October 2002, when the evacuation sparked violent clashes between settlers and soldiers.

Some of the youth, veterans of previous such “campaigns,” remained sullen and vigilant as the night wore on and news trickled in on walkie-talkies of the dismantling of a water tower here, a metal shipping container there.

Inside Zar’s tent the mood was grave. His comrades gathered under the canvas, sitting on makeshift couches fitted with Arabic-style cushions. Some cradled babies swaddled in blankets. They discussed their own unique brand of politics, a cocktail of religious messianism and the hard-nosed practicality of political activists.

Red lines, bridges and all matter of rhetorical boundaries have been crossed, the activists said. It now is time to take the battle to Sharon, for years the patron of the settlement movement but now its foe.

Some joked about sending bulldozers to Sharon’s ranch in the Negev, to “see how he feels when someone tries to rip apart his home.”

The anger toward Sharon is palpable. Settlers have passed from shock — over Sharon’s recent comments about Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinians — to indignation over his moves to dismantle outposts.

Sharon, they feel, is blind to the Palestinians’ true intentions — the destruction of the State of Israel, the outpost youth say.

“We are the ones that will die from his blindness,” one woman said. “How can we make peace with those that are sworn to our destruction?”

The activists pay little heed to the views of the majority of Israelis, who see the illegal encampments as a primary obstacle to peace and security, according to some recent polls.

“Security, security,” Zar said as he rose from the couch slowly, angry but tired, and walked over to an aerial map of the region.

Finger lightly brushing the green- and brown-shaded photograph, he traced his way from Nablus to a Palestinian village called Farta’a.

An Israeli army officer “told us that our presence here has blocked the route of terrorists to Israel,” Zar said. “So how can people say we are detrimental to security?”

Zar and his family had left most of their meager possessions — including an ancient air conditioner, a Sony boombox and several dozen books of Talmud and Gemarah — in the tent, knowing that they may well be ground into the earth when the outpost is removed.

Asked why he had not removed his possessions in the face of the expected onslaught, Zar said, “We have to believe, and we have to show the kids that we still have hope.”

Until last week, the settlers’ Yesha Council was cautious not to rouse the ire of Sharon, as well as their right-wing sympathizers in the government. Now, with Israel beginning to dismantle outposts while Palestinian terror attacks continue apace, the council has said it will oppose the evacuations.

For every outpost removed, Yesha officials pledged in a press conference Monday, five more will be erected. The National Religious Party and National Union have called an additional evacuation of inhabited outposts a “red line” that would compel them to leave the government.

“We will do everything we can to torpedo, obstruct and to prolong this step,” Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef said.

He accused Sharon of “cynically and manipulatively” exploiting settlers in an effort to place them in conflict with the Israel Defense Force.

The foot soldiers in this struggle are the youth who, under the orders of the Yesha Rabbinical Council, have flocked to the hills. The Rabbinical Council also has called on members of the army to question the morality of the government’s evacuation orders.

“The decision to uproot Jews from their homes and land in outposts or settlements” is “a crime from a Jewish, national and moral standpoint,” the council said in a statement. “We call on the government to retract this wretched and contemptible decision and we will use all our ability to prevent it from going forward.”

But the settlers say they will keep their opposition peaceful. Prowling the hilltop for cigarettes to cadge, Ido Austin, 18, and Elyashiv Geali, 16, were adamant about not using violence against soldiers sent to evacuate the outpost.

“You see this kipah,” said the hulking Austin, plucking the knitted cap from his head. “I will bury it in the dirt if I hear anyone call soldiers Nazis again.”

Meanwhile, gunfire crackled throughout the night in Nablus, just a few miles away. Army jeeps careened down the empty, winding highways, picking up some young stragglers making their way to the outposts.

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