It was Thursday morning, early December, in Jerusalem and we were scheduled to meet up with Israel Danziger a very short distance outside the city in what we call Judea and Samaria and what much of the world fallaciously calls the West Bank.
The last few times that my wife and I met up with Israel, he joined us on one of those pristine and quiet residential streets in Gilo and drove us out to some remote and isolated patch of land that seemed nondescript but in its own quiet way was very much at the center of the struggle between Arabs and Jews.
This was an unusually hot, sunny day for the middle of winter near the end of Chanukah. The night before, Israel had said on the phone that his coming into the city to meet us–he lives in Gush Etzion–was unnecessary, and that I was sufficiently familiar with the area from previous visits to follow his directions and meet him out in a little outpost called Maale Rehavim (which I wrote about shortly after my return from Israel this past winter.)
Two months after our return, in February, 1,000 police accompanied by bulldozers and tractors ascended on Maale Rehavim to forcibly remove the people living there and destroy their homes. Eight weeks prior, we were working under a hot winter sun digging small circular holes in the earth where we would plant ten olive trees. The planting of these trees is no small matter in this part of the world. Olive trees in particular are the fashion in which residents demonstrate their attachment to the land. The quicker you get your trees into the ground, the more convincing is your claim of ownership to whoever is interested.
Danziger made aliyah from Brooklyn more than 40 years ago. He runs a security company that consults for many of the communities and their residents on the matter of protecting themselves both personally and communally. On the same day that we planted the trees, we visited a family in another nearby community that was receiving instructions from Danziger on how to protect themselves if attacked while traveling on the roads of the territories. There are techniques and proven procedures for almost every conceivable situation, we learned.
Anyway, in February, nine homes were destroyed during the night in this tiny little outpost that is literally in the middle of nowhere and not bothering anyone. The people were told to leave their homes. When they did, the police entered and threw all their belongings–beds, couches, cribs, carriages, bicycles, and whatever else was in there, out the windows and into the front and back yards. Then the bulldozers did their thing and broke apart and flattened the structures. People were left homeless without warning in the middle of the night.
Why did the Israeli government do this to these pioneers and lovers of the land? The situation here is rather complex. Maale Rehavim is located in an area of Gush Etzion in which about ten years ago the Central Military Commander, Aluf Gadi Shami, drew a circle on a map of the area and declared that Jews are not permitted to live anywhere within the confines of that arbitrarily and flimsily drawn circle.
Interestingly, the Arabs are not concerned about this tract of land. It is Peace Now, the greatest and most menacing antagonists of Jews living in Judea and Samaria, that asked the military command to order the destruction of Maale Rehavim–a community established in memory of Israel government minister Rehavim Zeevi who was assassinated by Arab terrorists in the Jerusalem Hilton Hotel in 2001.
Maale Rehavim is on a sharply arching slope that culminates in a plateau where Danziger told us last year he was hoping to build the community’s shul. The homes have been mostly destroyed, but that hope of building that shul is still very much alive.
Last week, three months after the bulldozers rolled in during the night, the Israeli government announced intentions to legalize Maale Rehavim and three other so-called “illegal” outposts. The situation unfolds based on a combination of political and diplomatic circumstances that are difficult to comprehend.
Standing on an incline in Maale Rehavim, one can easily view the nearby communities of Nokdim and Kfar Elad. They are similar to Maale Rehavim except for the prior legal status and government authorization given for those two towns. Nokdim is home to former Israel Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Leiberman, and MK Zev Elkin of the Likud resides in Kfar Elad.
It sounds like these fledgling Jewish communities are distant and isolated in the territories, but they are surprisingly close to the daily hustle and bustle of Har Homa and Jerusalem itself.
How did Maale Rehavim get stuck in this difficult quandary that resulted in her destruction earlier this year? As part of an agreement between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George Bush in 2003, so called “illegal outposts” were supposed to be evacuated and destroyed as a side agreement to the Roadmap for Peace promoted by the former president and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.
According to Danziger, who was intimately involved in trying to save these communities from destruction, Ms. Rice was specifically focused on these relatively small settlement communities, insisting that they be razed in order to facilitate the forward movement of what she believed was going to be a real and productive peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Two things happened over the past several weeks that forced the hand of the Israeli government and led them to make public their intent to legalize four of these communities whose status has been suspended in limbo for a decade or more. The first was that the Maale Rehavim community leaders took their case to the Supreme Court on the very day of the demolition–a little too late for the residents who had their homes destroyed.
This being non-contested government land, the court wanted to know why, if the issue was labeled “under examination” back in 2007, did the government act on the community’s destruction. Oddly enough, on the day that the community was rendered nearly unlivable, Justice Asher Grunis ordered the military not to take any further action in Maale Rehavim or the other communities.
An additional reason why the Netanyahu government decided to finally legalize the community after ten years of mostly inaction on the matter is that U.S. Secretary John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Israel this week armed with the diplomatic fantasy of restarting talks between Israel and the PA.
From an American perspective that is, for the most part, based on shocking negligence of the reality on the ground, there is no greater obstacle to peace in the region than Israel’s “illegal” or formerly illegal outposts. And it seems that Kerry is just as determined on this matter as was Rice in 2003, a decade ago.
There is no question that on this week’s trip to the region Kerry will press Israel to dismantle those so-called obstacle-to-peace communities. Having been there, I have to say that the refusal of the Secretary of State to take the short ride from Jerusalem to a place like Maale Rehavim–a community of 15 mostly not-so-sturdy homes and temporary caravans which is a living tribute to an assassinated government minister–is irresponsible. Secretary Kerry, just like Hillary Clinton and Ms. Rice before him, would be very surprised about how unobtrusive these communities are. And by the way, in case you have not yet concluded that the system on these matters in Israel revolves around a serious lack of logic, know that only the homes that were built from scratch in Maale Rehavim were destroyed. The caravans where about five families reside were not touched. And do you know why? The caravans belong to the Israeli government, and they do not want to destroy their own property.
There is another hearing this week before the Supreme Court. Israel Danziger will be there hoping that the court affirms the legality of the community and allows the residents to rebuild. Of course money is going to be a serious problem, as those who had their homes destroyed took out bank loans to build them. Just because the homes are now in the scrap heap does not mean that they do not have to repay their loans.
This is a pristine and isolated desert community surrounded by rolling hills and beautiful white sand. We planted trees for a future that was rudely and nonsensically interrupted by a political policy that makes no sense and just hurts families. You may want to help them rebuild. They can surely use your help. To reach Israel Danziger, write Guards24@zahav.net.il. v
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