Houses, fences and fruit trees: A decade of watching settlements grow
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Houses, fences and fruit trees: A decade of watching settlements grow

A trip through the West Bank with Dror Etkes, who tracks how Israel’s settlements are altering the physical, political and human landscape in one of the world’s most complicated pieces of land

Dror Etkes, left, and Herzl, along the Green Line (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Dror Etkes, left, and Herzl, along the Green Line (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

It has been just over a decade since Dror Etkes began criss-crossing the West Bank in a long war of unstinting dedication and uncertain efficacy against the spread of Israeli settlements.

In these years, Etkes, 44, has developed the skills of a political tracker — an expert at discerning what the landscape can reveal about the humans vying for control of this small piece of crowded and disputed land.

He knows that fences with squares of metal mesh are Israeli, and standard chain-link fences are Palestinian. Field crops like cabbage or beets are usually Palestinian; Israelis tend to grow olives or grapes. Viewing a series of aerial photographs of one location over several years, he knows that dark brown fields divided into small, uneven plots means land worked by Palestinian farmers. Grayish soil means the land has been abandoned, sometimes because of closures by the army or because the Palestinian owners fear violence from settlers.

When, a few years later, neat green rows of trees or vines appear, it usually means Israeli farmers are now working the same land. It is a pattern he has seen repeated across the West Bank.

The settlements in the West Bank, home to 300,000 Israelis living in guarded enclaves among a Palestinian Arab population of around 2 million, are the country’s single most divisive issue. And yet information on the precise nature of the project that has come to shape Israel’s political reality is typically scarce. No one outside the settlement movement and Israeli defense establishment — and few inside — knows more about the ongoing evolution of settlements than Dror Etkes.

One day this month in the West Bank, Etkes grinned as he raced along dirt paths in a silver jeep — “There is an infantile aspect to this part of it, I admit,” he said — stopped to investigate new signs of cleared land or blasted rock, peered through binoculars at a few new trailer homes on a hilltop, and snapped pictures with his 13-year-old daughter’s cherry-red Canon. His own camera broke some time ago, and he hasn’t found time to replace it.

Etkes introduced the use of aerial photos and digital mapping to track the growth of settlements (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Etkes introduced the use of aerial photos and digital mapping to track the growth of settlements (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Of particular interest to Etkes these days is the growth of Israeli agriculture, in some cases on land that is, according to land records kept by the military, owned by Palestinians.

In the riverbeds south of the veteran settlement of Ofra, north of Jerusalem, for example, are several plots farmed by Israelis — straight rows of grapevines in one case, fruit trees in another. According to his research, the land registry shows the plots belong to Palestinians from the nearby village of Ein Yabroud.

Agricultural land in the West Bank is the subject of a study Etkes is set to release next month, the inaugural project of a new organization that currently consists of Etkes himself, and which he calls Kerem Navot, or Navot’s Vineyard.

That name, a barbed biblical citation, might go over the head of the average Israeli — but not over that of members of the religious settler movement, at whom it is aimed.

A man named Navot, the Book of Kings tells us, had the misfortune of owning a vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab. The king coveted the vineyard, but Navot refused to cede it, so the queen, Jezebel, had him killed. The king took possession of the vineyard.

In one corner of the neighborhood were four Arab families whose homes had been there before the 1967 war. ‘It never occurred to me, not even once, to talk to them and ask them what had been here before,’ Etkes said

After that, the prophet Elijah showed up to confront Ahab with a famous accusatory line whose rhyme and cadence do not survive the translation from Hebrew: “So says the Lord: Have you murdered and inherited too?”

The nature of the conflict in the West Bank makes it difficult to track how land changes hands. Palestinians who have sold land to Jews have been killed by other Palestinians in the past, so many sales are conducted under the table and never registered. That means it is often hard to discern if there has been any sale at all. There have been cases of fraud committed by settlers, and cases of Palestinians cheating settlers. Adding another twist is an Ottoman law still in effect in the territory according to which the state can legally take land if it isn’t farmed for a prolonged period of time. Palestinian owners typically do not appeal the seizure of their land, because they fear reprisals or simply don’t trust the Israeli military and legal system.

The settler leadership denies land is being illegally taken over, and the Israeli military says it deals with any justified complaint from Palestinians.

“In any instance where complaints are received of land takeovers, after ownership is proven, the matter is taken care of according to legal procedures by all law-enforcement authorities,” said Guy Inbar, a military spokesman.

The outpost of Amona, June, 2012 (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
The outpost of Amona, June 2012 (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Dror Etkes was born and raised in a religious home of moderate politics. His father, Immanuel Etkes, is a prominent scholar of European Judaism at Hebrew University.

He grew up on a street built in a part of the West Bank annexed to Jerusalem after the Six-Day War and turned into a pleasant neighborhood with a population of middle-class Israelis. Across the street lived Gershom Salomon, who is nationally known as the head of a group which lobbied for years for the construction of a new temple in Jerusalem, but who was locally known, at least among neighborhood boys, as the father of several particularly beautiful daughters.

In one corner of the neighborhood were four Arab families whose homes had been there before the 1967 war. “It never occurred to me, not even once, to talk to them and ask them what had been here before,” Etkes said.

His own family, he said, never thought of themselves as settlers, though they lived on land captured in 1967. They believed, as most Israelis do, that Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem makes that territory different from the rest of the West Bank. “We all draw our own maps,” Etkes said.

He is forgiving of his parents. “They were the children of refugees,” he said. “We, on the other hand, are a regional superpower. It is our generation’s job to look at reality with our eyes open.”

Like many committed activists, Etkes tends to see the world in moral terms. In his eyes, the settlement movement, predicated on the disenfranchisement of Palestinian Arabs, is an unforgivable moral failing, and he has made it his job to ensure that Israelis are aware of what that looks like on the ground.

‘People who grow up religious grow up with a surplus of ideology, and sometimes people take it in directions the society didn’t intend,’ Etkes said

In many ways, Etkes resembles the people he spends his time trying to track. The bookshelf in his moshav home — which he shares with his partner, Luna, two daughters, and an unpredictable mutt named Herzl — includes books on Jewish thought and history and on the geography of the Land of Israel, the same volumes that can be found in most religious Zionist living rooms. Like his counterparts in the settlement movement, he is impatient with armchair ideology, and seems happiest when out in the hills of the West Bank.

A surprisingly large number of prominent left-wing activists, particularly in Jerusalem, were raised in religious Zionist homes. “People who grow up religious grow up with a surplus of ideology, and sometimes people take it in directions the society didn’t intend,” Etkes said.

His drift from religious life was gradual, beginning with his military service in the paratroops and culminating, in his recollection, with his first cheeseburger, during a visit to Germany at age 27.

In 2002, he joined the veteran group Peace Now and helped revolutionize the group’s attempt to track settlements, using aerial photos and computerized mapping systems that could overlay images from consecutive years. That made it possible to discern how territory was moving from Palestinian to Israeli control.

These were the peak years of the Palestinian terror war that has become known as the Second Intifada, with the West Bank in the throes of Palestinian attacks and the army’s crushing response. In retrospect, Etkes says, these were also peak years for the seizure of land: Palestinian farmers were kept from their fields by the fighting, and in some cases Israelis moved in.

“At the time, I didn’t really understand what I was seeing,” he said.

Etkes left Peace Now for another group, Yesh Din, and subsequently left that group as well after a blowup with management. Etkes is a prickly and uncompromising type with an ascetic streak, and one can sense a certain discomfort on his part with the organized Israeli left, centered in Tel Aviv and distant physically and spiritually from the wadis and rocky paths of the West Bank. Etkes wears T-shirts and old sneakers and prefers Jerusalem to Tel Aviv; this is an important social distinction among Israelis, expressing an inclination toward historical complexity and informality over an atmosphere of international culture and upward mobility.

Fruit trees (center) grown by Israelis on a plot of land registered as belonging to owners from the nearby village of Ein Yabroud. In the distance are the red-roofed house of the settlement of Ofra (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Fruit trees (center) grown by Israelis on a plot of land Etkes says is registered as belonging to owners from the nearby village of Ein Yabroud. In the distance are the red-roofed house of the settlement of Ofra (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The Palestinian intifada of 2000 destroyed the old Israeli left, which was built on the idea that peace was possible if Israel compromised enough. The violence that began that year convinced most Israelis, including moderates, that this was not true.

The activists tracking the settlements understand that their powers are limited. Reversing the spread of settlements is beyond their power, and beyond that of the Supreme Court

The desire for separation from the Palestinians, which originated on the left, is now accepted by broad swaths of Israeli society, but the left itself never recovered. Once a mass movement that shaped Israeli society and held power, the Israeli left is currently an array of organizations without substantial public backing, kept on monetary life support by European governments and foundations, their activities generally drawing more attention from the international media than they do at home. Etkes’s new study is funded by Diakoniya, a Swedish NGO.

Since embarking on his settlement-tracking enterprise, Etkes has organized several high-profile court appeals by Palestinian landowners seeking to restore land taken by Israelis. In one of his best-known victories, Israeli authorities were forced by the courts to destroy nine homes built on Palestinian-owned land at the unauthorized outpost of Amona in 2006.

The outpost has only grown since then, and is still visible on a hilltop next to Ofra. The state has sought to avoid or delay evacuating it, despite directives from the courts to do so. Last month the Supreme Court granted another postponement, giving the government until July 15 to act.

The activists tracking the settlements understand that their powers are limited, said Hagit Ofran, who currently runs Peace Now’s tracking project. Reversing the spread of settlements is beyond their power, she said, and beyond that of the Supreme Court.

“Stopping the settlements means we have to convince the Israeli public to stop the occupation and the settlements, and that’s a big goal that we haven’t yet achieved,” she said.

The goal of tracking settlements, she said, is “to constantly bring it up for public discussion, not to give up, not to let any action in the settlements get by without discussion and criticism.” At this, she said, they have been successful, and as a result, the “ability of settlers to act in contravention of democratic decisions has been limited.”

Etkes in the West Bank, last week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)
Etkes in the West Bank, last week (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

The activists may win battles, but their war is not going well. An instructive example is Migron, an outpost north of Jerusalem, which Etkes tracked nearly from its inception and helped challenge in court.

Migron was an archetype for the growth of some 100 wildcat settlements that exist across the West Bank, which were simultaneously illegal and built with the full collusion of arms of the Israeli government. One arm of the state, the army’s Civil Administration, marked all of Migron’s homes for demolition, while other arms of the state paved a road and hooked the same homes up to the electricity and water grids.

‘There is a large population of law-abiding Jewish Israelis here,’ a settler spokeswoman said. ‘There might be instances of land conflicts, as there are anywhere in the world. If there is a legal basis for any of the claims, they are decided in court’

Settlers claimed to have purchased some of the land at Migron from an Arab owner in a deal notarized in Orange County, California, but the acquisition was a forgery. The notary denied any knowledge of the deal, his signature didn’t match the documents, and the Arab owner who had supposedly signed the sale documents had died 40 years before.

The mainstream of the settlement movement generally makes an effort to remain in the boundaries of Israeli society and its laws. Miri Ovadia, a spokesman for the Binyamin Regional Council — the local government in charge of the area that includes the outposts of Amona and Migron, and the agricultural lands in dispute south of Ofra — said there was “no takeover of lands whatsoever” in the council’s jurisdiction.

“There is a large population of law-abiding Jewish Israelis here,” she said. “There might be instances of land conflicts, as there are anywhere in the world. If there is a legal basis for any of the claims, they are decided in court.”

But as some parts of the settler movement, particularly the younger generation, become more extreme and more distant from the Israeli mainstream, the need to justify their actions based on Israeli law has lessened. Instead, acceptance has increased in some quarters for an ideology according to which purchasing land from Palestinians is unnecessary because all of the land is Jewish anyway.

Migron, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Migron, 2011 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

In a May 2 interview with Army Radio, a young religious settler was asked about a field owned by a Palestinian. She said, “He has no field. Not in Israel.”

In fact, she said, citing her rabbis, a Palestinian landowner was actually a “thief,” because he had taken land that originally belonged to Jews. She did not give her name, and identified herself as a member of the “hilltop youth,” an extremist fringe of the settler movement.

In 2008, Itay Harel, a young settler living in Migron on land owned by a family from the nearby Palestinian village of Burqa, said the settlers had purchased the land, but also that the sale was beyond what was required by Jewish law. Israel belongs to the Jews, he said, and thus while Jews might purchase land from Arabs, they are not required to do so.

Last year, Israeli authorities finally struck an agreement with the Migron settlers after a legal battle lasting years. They left the hilltop. This would seem like a major victory for Etkes and other settlement opponents.

Last week, Etkes drove out to Migron with a reporter. The windswept hilltop no longer houses a tidy community of young families, but there are still a few trailer homes there. Outside one of them, a half-dozen armed young men in knitted skullcaps stared sullenly at us from behind a fence until we left. There is a single plot on the site that is still in dispute, and the settlers will remain there until it is resolved.

At the bottom of the hill, the Migron families now live in a few new rows of homes paid for by the state. This is officially a temporary solution, but it is effectively a new settlement which will remain in place after they are moved to their permanent settlement, which the state is building for them several miles away.

One settlement, in other words, has become three.

“Was this a great victory?” asked Etkes as he drove back down the hill. “I’m not sure.”

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