A radical settler wages war against annexation — but he is far from alone
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Interview'Netanyahu is cutting off the land of Israel from the Jews'

A radical settler wages war against annexation — but he is far from alone

For Ira Rappaport, who was a member of the Jewish Underground terror group in the 1980s, the Trump plan is a disaster; his misgivings are emblematic of growing alarm among settlers

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Ira Rappaport at his blueberry field, near Shiloh, on June 4, 2020 (Photo: courtesy)
Ira Rappaport at his blueberry field, near Shiloh, on June 4, 2020 (Photo: courtesy)

Ira Rappaport makes a tear in the cloth of his shirt, the age-old Jewish sign of grief. US President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for Middle East peace has filled him with that emotion, he says.

“Things are far worse than we thought,” Rappaport laments. “I live in [the settlement of] Shiloh, and I’m going to suffer from here on out. But it’s not just me.”

Vision for Peace Conceptual Map published by the Trump Administration on January 28, 2020.

Settler leaders are increasingly decrying the plan, which Netanyahu is aggressively pushing in order to allow annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, but which some Jewish leaders in the region dread — both for enabling the  potential (though, at this point, highly theoretic) establishment of a Palestinian state and for seemingly allowing 15 settlements to become enclaves within that future entity.

Rappaport says under the apparent outlines of the plan, “Anyone living in Kiryat Arba won’t be able to travel to Jerusalem, for example. They’re telling them, ‘Drive to Beersheba.’

“But that’s not the main issue,” Rappaport stresses. “When you’re giving away the Land of Israel to our worst enemy, that’s the greatest of sins. But when you’re also severing the connection between the settlements, that’s no less of a crime. Have we learned nothing? Did we not see what happened when we left Gush Katif [the Jewish settlements in the Gaza strip]? Now they’re coming after our land here, in Judea and Samaria.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to students at the Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on January 28, 2019 (Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Rappaport, 75, has been a radical activist among settlers in the West Bank for decades — and was a member of the infamous Jewish Underground terrorist cell, which operated in the 1980s.

Born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Rappaport was one of the Jewish activists supporting Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight for black American rights in the 1960s and marched — with his brother, Baruch — alongside King in Washington DC and elsewhere. “We marched tens of miles, even on Saturdays,” Rappaport recalls.

He immigrated to Israel in 1971 after watching the movie “Exodus,” starring Paul Newman, having finished his master’s degree in social service. He initially lived in the settlement of Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula, until it was evacuated and bulldozed in 1982 before being handed over to Egypt as part of the nations’ peace accord.

Rappaport was recruited to the Jewish Underground by his brother in law, Yehuda Etzion. The Underground, considered a terrorist group by Israeli authorities, numbered 29 members who carried out attacks against Arabs between 1979-1984. Fifteen members of the group were convicted and served prison terms for a range of serious offenses including the killing of Palestinian seminary students and plotting to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to pave the way for the reconstruction of a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount.

In June 1980 he took part in an operation to plant a bomb under the car of then mayor of Nablus, Bassam Shakaa. In the ensuing explosion, Shakaa lost both his legs.

Bassam Shakaa, former mayor of Nablus, after he lost both his legs when the Jewish Underground terroist cell planted an explosive device under his car, in June 1980

Rappaport was indicted and sentenced in 1986 to 30 months incarceration — but he served only half that time, getting pardoned by president Chaim Herzog as a Passover gesture in 1988.

He is now a tour guide and a farmer. His interview with Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel, took place while he harvested his blueberry field just outside Shiloh. He says the land for that field was purchased from its Palestinian owner by an American millionaire who lives in a nearby settlement.

President Trump is offering, for the first time, US-sanctioned Israeli sovereignty over all settlements. How are you not happy about that?

“That’s not the issue here. Does Trump know that I’m 50 miles from Jerusalem — but am about to become an enclave in a Palestinian territory? Does he even understand the map that he’s looking at? Does he know that the distances we’re talking about here are almost the same as the distance between the White House and Blair House across?

“If he’s giving us sovereignty without a Palestinian state, then fine. But this idea of sovereignty? How does it help me?

“Look, they say we’ll become part of the state of Israel, right? Now go look at the map. Today, it takes me 20 minutes to travel from Shiloh to the center of Jerusalem. Now, [with the new mapping plan] I will have to travel down south and then travel around back north just to get to Jerusalem.”

Does Trump know that I’m 50 miles from Jerusalem – but am about to become an enclave in a Palestinian territory? Does he even understand the map that he’s looking at?

“I won’t even be able to drive straight to Ariel, unless I travel via the terrorists’ land. So, I’ll be isolated and cut off. Netanyahu is cutting off the Land of Israel from the Jews.”

You’re missing out on a rare opportunity, though: You get sovereignty whereas the Palestinians aren’t getting anything — as they won’t accept the terms stipulated in Trump’s plan.

“Just look back at history: Yasser Arafat got eventually a lot more than what we thought he would. Anwar Saddat got every inch of the Sinai Peninsula. They’re not that dumb. If you go into negotiations, you don’t know how you’ll come out. So this needs to be fought against in the most extreme measures.”

Rappaport is quick to clarify, though, that he is not referring to violent measures, in vein with his Jewish Underground past. “What was right then isn’t right for now,” he says. “The Underground isn’t suitable for this situation.

“But, we can influence ministers [in the Israeli government] so that they’ll object [to the plan]. Trump gave this plan to appease both the Jews and the Evangelists. But today, both oppose it — because it takes away the Land of Israel from the Jews. And Netanyahu is a part of this deed.”

US President Donald Trump speaks during an event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Complex relationship with Netanyahu

Netanyahu has always been a questionable figure for the settlers: though he now enthusiastically supports annexation, they still remember that he was the one to hand over 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority in 1997. Back then, Rappaport stated that “I wouldn’t want to be in Netanyahu’s place when he reaches the heavenly court.”

In fact, for Rappaport, all Israeli leaders who messed with the Land of Israel are damned: Menachem Begin for giving up Sinai, Moshe Dayan for belittling the importance of the Temple Mount, Yitzhak Shamir for going to the Madrid convention in 1991, Yitzhak Rabin for signing the Oslo Accords, Ariel Sharon for dismantling the settlements in the Gaza Strip — and even Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert for merely agreeing to negotiate a return of territories.

“Netanyahu wants to go down in the history books as the leader who gave us sovereignty. But you don’t give away parts of the Land of Israel just for the sake of your own historic aspirations,” Rappaport concludes.

“Netanyahu wants to go down in history as the leader who gave us sovereignty. But you don’t give away parts of the land of Israel just for the sake of your own historic aspirations

Though he may be particularly critical, Rappaport is by no means a lone voice these days. Many in the settlement movement are not at all happy with Netanyahu’s plans for the West Bank.

David Elhayani, chairman of the Yesha Council umbrella group of settlement mayors, has become a harsh, outspoken critic of the Trump plan, going so far as to say this week that the US president was no friend of Israel’s.

In a meeting the prime minister held on Tuesday with settler leaders, one of the attendees was Shai Alon, the head of the Beit El municipality.

“They didn’t take us seriously until now,” Alon tells The Times of Israel. “They thought we’d be quiet and just tag along. Now Netanyahu understands that it’s all about to blow up. So he is trying to divide and conquer us.”

David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council and the Yesha Council of West Bank mayors, at a Yesha protest tent near the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 4, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elhayani is a Likud party member. So is Yossi Dagan, Samaria Regional Council head. Rappaport, too, is a Likud party member. Netanyahu’s strongest opposition today is coming from within his own party lines.

“Netanyahu can stop this plan,” Rappaport is convinced. “Trump doesn’t really know it well. You can see it on the map. Netanyahu could just tell the president, ‘Forget it, you’ve been fed nonsense.’

“But Netanyahu actually wants a Palestinian state. He took the map that Rabin, [Shimon] Peres and Barak used — and now he wants to enact it here, on the ground. Just unbelievable.”

The rift within the right-wing camp

Rappaport voiced his objection to Trump’s peace plan immediately after the US president revealed it on January 28 in the White House. Right-wing journalists who accompanied Netanyahu on that trip were dancing on the streets of Washington DC when Rappaport called this reporter, dramatically declaring that his world had just come crashing down.

Israeli TV journalist Shimon Riklin of channel 20. November 11, 2019. (Photo: Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The rift now seen within the right-wing camp is complex and evolving.

Shimon Riklin, once a member of the Hilltop Youth in the West Bank and now a well known TV journalist and big Netanyahu fan, sneers at Rappaport’s attitude.

Riklin believes there will never be a Palestinian state, as the Palestinians will never agree to the terms Netanyahu, through Trump, has cunningly laid out for them.

Meanwhile Boaz Ha’etzni, one of the prominent speakers among the settlers, claims that “Riklin is not right-wing. He is a ‘Bibist,’ and there’s a difference.

“This peace plan is a disaster,” says Ha’etzni. “The Palestinians will be able to develop and build on their land without limit. For us, it will be lost land and sorrow for generations to come.”

Right now, many eyes are focused on one man: Ze’ev Chever, or “Zambish”. He is a living legend among the settlers — he too was a member of the Jewish Underground, along with Rappaport — but he has had the ears of prime ministers for decades now.

(From L-R) Yesha Council director Yigal Dilmoni, chairman David Elhayani show Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked a map of the West Bank based on the Trump plan on May 25, 2020. (Courtesy)

Chever also attended the meeting with Netanyahu this week, and brought with him an enlarged version of the apparently proposed map, to emphasize the issues settlers see with creating enclaves of settlements between Palestinian-controlled territory.

Ze’ev Chever (Zambish) visits at the protest tent of Beit el residents in front of the prime minister office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2017. The residents demand from prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to build 300 apartments in Beit El as he promised five years ago. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The settlers believe Chever can “call Netanyahu out of any meeting,” as one of them put it — and are convinced he will be able to alter Netanyahu’s plans and Trump’s proposed map.

In Shiloh, Rappaport yearns to stop it all. Forget about annexation — keep things as they are.

“Sometimes, there are situations that just don’t have a solution,” he says.

“In our case, the existing status quo is actually better — certainly better than Trump and Netanahu’s sovereignty.”

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