Rubble and ruins were all that were remained of the illegal settlement outpost of Ramat Migron one sweltering August morning.
A day earlier, as dawn had broken on Monday, August 15, phalanxes of Border Police officers and Civil Administration personnel descended on the desolate hilltop northeast of Jerusalem, removing residents from their homes and razing every structure at the site, including houses made of prefab walls, a makeshift synagogue, and a goat pen.
The scene was a rerun. Just five days the same outpost had been razed in a nearly identical operation.
Now, a day after the second demolition, furniture and household appliances were once again scattered forlornly around the hilltop.
Ovens, washing machines and refrigerators rose from the scrubby landscape like small domesticated monoliths.
And a pair of sofas, still bearing their cushions, lie overlooking the surrounding hills, creating a splendid al fresco living room.
But amid the ruins, reconstruction was in full swing, just as it had been five days earlier.
Alongside piles of twisted prefab walls and the splintered remains of wooden beams used as foundations, activists and idealistic right-wing youths, some as young as 15, were busy rebuilding their homes.
Wood that could be salvaged was being repurposed into new foundations, while piles of fresh prefab walls, consisting of insulation material sandwiched between two thin layers of metal, lay waiting to go up.
Until that Monday morning, the residents of Ramat Migron had numbered three families, two with children, and a handful of boys and young men.
The families temporarily left the hilltop after the outpost was razed, although the youths remained at the site, camping out while they rebuilt their wildcat outpost.
Several days later, they reported that the homes had been rebuilt and Ramat Migron had risen from the ashes once again.
And then, on August 30, the bulldozers returned, the residents were evicted, and the homes were demolished for the third time in a month.
Succor for settlers
New settlements in the West Bank can only be legally established via a cabinet resolution and with the authorization of the defense minister, but settlers seeking to expand Israel’s footprint in the West Bank often set up unauthorized outposts, including on privately owned Palestinian land.
While international law considers all settlements in the West Bank illegal, Israel only regards those set up without permission to be outside the bounds of the law.
Some outposts have been retroactively legalized, especially those able to attract dozens of families or in areas with no ownership claimant. Others, usually consisting of a few makeshift structures, are nipped in the bud by the Defense Ministry before they can take root. In some ways, Ramat Migron is an example of both.
In 2002, settlers set up several caravan mobile homes on a hilltop near a main highway east of Ramallah and called the site Migron. By 2012, the outpost had managed to attract hundreds of families, and the government, forced by court order to raze ןא, moved them to a new site — also called Migron — on the edge of the nearby settlement of Kochav Yaakov.
In April 2021, settlers returned to the original hill, setting up Ramat Migron, or “Migron Heights.”
Since then, it has been torn down five times. The sixth may be coming.
“If they destroy it again we will rebuild it again, even if it is destroyed a hundred times,” said a defiant Tzur Neuman, Ramat Migron’s 17-year-old goatherd.
Providing succor to the settlers are politicians who have become increasingly uninhibited about expressing their support for the establishment of illegal outposts.
MK Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, currently forecast to be one of the largest parties in the next Knesset, praised the Ramat Migron activists after the first demolition in August, describing them as “heroic pioneers who don’t give up.”
The former minister even called on the public to donate to a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the rebuilding of the outpost. Nearly NIS 190,000 ($57,000) has been raised so far.
And while support for such outposts by politicians from ultra-nationalist parties such as Religious Zionism is unsurprising, it is also increasingly coming from more conventional parties as well.
Likud MK Yariv Levin, a former Knesset speaker and minister who finished first in the party’s non-leadership primary in August, recently condemned the demolition of Derech Emunah, an illegal outpost in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem.
Among the politicians who backed the establishment of Derech Emunah were MK Eli Cohen, number 3 on Likud’s electoral slate behind Levin and party head Benjamin Netanyahu, and MK Uriel Busso from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Two more Likud MKs, May Golan and Keti Shitrit, lent their support to a massive settlement outpost establishment campaign in July when the Nachala organization sent thousands of activists into the West Bank to set up seven outposts, all of which were swiftly dismantled.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, arguably the most hawkish member of the current government, publicly supported the illegal effort, describing the Nachala activists as a “true inspiration.”
Should a Likud-led right-wing government take power after November elections, it’s unlikely it will move as quickly as the current government did in Ramat Migron, if at all, to quash illegal land grabs.
And even when outposts are demolished, there is often a trade-off for authorized settlement expansion elsewhere.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, when announcing that the Nachala outposts would be dismantled, took care to emphasize that the demolitions came “alongside the continued construction and strengthening of legal settlements.”
God and goats
Often referred to as “hilltop youth,” the ideologically hardcore and determined band of settler activists at Ramat Migron have embraced a frontiersman-type existence, living away from civilization and reveling in the isolation, hardship and sense of mission that comes with pioneering Jewish settlement on a lonely hilltop in the heart of what the activists describe as the biblical heartland and divinely promised homeland of the Jewish people.
Their declared goal is to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state by seizing tracts of land in the West Bank for Jewish settlement.
“The establishment of illegal outposts is a political endeavor which enables creating facts on the ground and de facto annexation,” said Dana Mills, interim director of dovish settlement watchdog Peace Now.
The outpost activists say they are driven by a conviction that the entire, biblically defined land of Israel is designated by God for Jewish sovereignty alone.
“I believe that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, in its entirety,” said Elisha Yered, 22, one of the married residents of Ramat Migron and a well-known hilltop activist in the settlement movement.
In Yered’s opinion, anyone who “supports terror and denies the right of existence to the State of Israel” should not be able to live within its borders. That includes the West Bank, captured by Israel and populated by hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers alongside millions of Palestinians, but never officially annexed into the state.
“The majority of Arabs definitely do not support the state of Israel, negate the existence of the State of Israel, support terrorism and should not be here,” he claims. “Who will do it, how will they do [the expulsion]? That’s not connected to me. I’m involved in settling this mountain.”
Many of the youth see their mission as akin to that of the original Zionist pioneers, who laid the foundations of the state of Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those early Zionists faced similar setbacks, Ramat Migron’s faithful say, but eventually prevailed.
“One hundred years ago those who came to build this country were told everything they built would be destroyed, yet in the end we achieved a state,” said Ramat Migron’s local shepherd Oz-Yehudah Rom, 19.
The young men are also unflinching in the face of the physical hardship of their hilltop lifestyle.
Living in the destroyed outpost means sleeping under the stars for days while rebuilding the homes, and tending to their flocks without shelter from the blazing summer sun.
When their houses were knocked down the first time, in November 2021, the group slept rough on mattresses under the cold winter sky.
“We did not invent the idea of settling the land. My great-grandfather came here and established Petah Tikva, as well as new neighborhoods outside of Jerusalem, and coped with things like malaria. Many even died,” said Yered.
Maintaining a permanent guard throughout the night is a basic security necessity, and the activism does not come with a paycheck. Many of the youths earn money as day laborers in nearby settlements, and the money for the permanent structures at Ramat Migron, which cost some NIS 30,000 ($9,000) each, comes from donations, such as the crowd-funding campaign endorsed by Smotrich.
But the physical challenges of outpost living and the proximity to the land itself also seem to inspire the settlers.
Despite the difficulties of shepherding in such demanding conditions, Rom sees his occupation as part of the effort to “seize every centimeter of land” which he said is the main purpose of this activity.
Neither Rom nor Neuman utilize their flocks for producing milk or meat. Rather, the grazing livestock are there as a means of establishing a presence and laying a claim to as wide a swath of land as possible.
The tactic, which rights groups have criticized, was explicitly laid out by Yered in a column for the Shabbat newssheet Olam Katan in April this year.
“The pastures are often the frontline that paves the way for other forms of settlement,” he explained.
“The shepherding actually brings the first Jewish presence to an area that was empty of Jews until that time, and slowly establishes Jewish control over it,” he wrote.
Soon enough, Yered wrote, the pastures can be declared agricultural plots, followed by the paving of access roads to reach the plots, and eventually the building of permanent dwellings.
Connecting to and settling the land in this way, say Rom and Neuman, is “a national mission for the Jewish people” to which they are supremely dedicated.
Unlike the largely secular Zionists of yore, they see their remit as handed down from on high, infusing their quest with a radical messianic zeal often at odds with the non-theocratic state.
“This national mission comes from the spiritual mission [of the Jewish people]. We have no concept of nation without the Torah. If we didn’t have the Torah then we would have gone to Uganda,” said Neuman, referencing the rejected Uganda Plan for a temporary Jewish homeland in east Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.
“When you are connected to nature and to agriculture you are more connected to God,” added Rom.
According to the Kerem Navot organization, which campaigns against settlement expansion and Israeli control of the West Bank, shepherding and goat-herding have become an increasingly common way for settlers in unauthorized outposts to try and take control of land in Area C of the West Bank. Area C, under Israeli military and administrative control, is where the Israeli settlements are located — some 60% of the West Bank.
A recent report by the organization stated that the number of agricultural outposts has ballooned over the last decade, with 66 established in the last ten years, 46 of which were created since 2017 alone.
Dror Etkes, an anti-settlement campaigner who heads Kerem Navot, said the overriding purpose of establishing grazing outposts is to enable the settlers to take control of large tracts of land, without needing to physically settle the vast majority of it, in exactly the manner described by Yered, Rom and Neuman.
Neither Etkes or Peace Now could state definitively what the legal status of the land on which Ramat Migron sits is, although Etkes noted that the settlers claim to have bought a plot of land in the vicinity.
Yered did not answer questions as to the legal status of the land.
The darker side of Ramat Migron
There are frequent allegations of settler violence emanating from the outposts. Etkes and Peace Now both charge that outpost settlers frequently attack Palestinians who come to graze their livestock in the same or nearby territory.
“Ramat Migron has a history of illegal returns to the land and forcing the Israeli government and army to deal with violent and forceful attempts to take over land which is private Palestinian land, and should be stopped early on,” said Mills, the Peace Now leader.
In one incident in April this year, a Palestinian man was badly beaten by residents of Ramat Migron. According to +972 Magazine, the man in question was 63-year old Nasif Abdel Jaber, who suffers from mental health disorders and also has brain cancer.
Abdel Jaber, who has American citizenship, said he was visiting his land abutting the Ramat Migron site when he was attacked by settlers who severely beat him, causing him injuries all over his body.
Yered denied these claims at the time, saying Abdel Jaber had come within 100 meters of one of the Ramat Migron homes, and when Yered and other young men from the outpost approached him, he attacked them.
האיש בתמונה הזו, שהצלם דורך עליו בעודו שרוי על האדמה – חולה בסרטן המוח ולוקה בנפשו. שמו נסיף. פלסטיני מבוגר, כבד תנועה, בשנות השישים לחייו, ואזרח אמריקאי. מתנחלים מהמאחז רמת מגרון צילמו והעלו את התמונה בחמישי, וכתבו: "מחבל חדר למאחז. ב"ה הוא נתפס, טופל????ונעצר בידי תושבי הגבעה" >> pic.twitter.com/tMkrkcedxe
— Yuval Abraham יובל אברהם (@yuval_abraham) April 13, 2022
According to a recent report by Peace Now using data from the Yesh Din organization, there were 1,256 incidents of violence by settlers against Palestinians and Palestinian property from 2012 to mid-2021.
Of those incidents, 63% took place near illegal outposts, Peace Now’s report found.
Yered is a prominent and even notorious hilltop activist. When he was 15, the Shin Bet arrested him and secured an order banning him from living in the West Bank due to alleged involvement in violent activities against Palestinians.
About a week after he spoke to The Times of Israel from the outpost, Yered was arrested in the Etzion Bloc, this time on suspicion of trespassing and theft of Palestinian property with nationalistic motivation.
Video footage from the property shows Yered looking directly into a security camera and then repositioning it, while footage from other cameras show the intruders loading their pickup truck with various items from the site.
Yered’s attorney denied the allegations of theft, asserted there was no nationalistic motivation in his actions, and said his client and others thought the property was abandoned.
איזור אום שעבין- מתנחלים תועדו לפני מספר ימים כשהם פורצים למבנה חקלאי ששייך לחסן עבד חוסין אלשעלאן. המתנחלים השחיתו ציוד הורידו את השער והגדר המקיפה ושברו מצלמות. pic.twitter.com/kJApi4CJM3
— רסאלה (@RISALA_2) August 13, 2022
A Peace Now report from 2019 found that 32 illegal settlement outposts have been built since 2012 and allowed to remain standing.
These settlements take various forms, such as farming outposts, educational institutions, and tourist sites.
Whereas outposts such as Ramat Migron, Netiv Avot, Amona and others that have been razed by the state were established by hilltop youth in an independent manner, the 32 outposts that have not been demolished were established by the settlement movement and its various organs.
These include local settlement municipal authorities, the Amana settlement construction organization, and the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.
Through their political connections and activism, these groups have managed to establish facts on the ground and ward off demolition by the state, Peace Now asserts.
Yered, Rom, Neuman and the other residents of Ramat Migron believe their outpost will one day break the Sisyphean cycle of raze and rebuild.
“The state never permitted the establishment of settlements and removed settlers time and again,” said Yered. “But they came back took control of the land, and in the end they succeeded. We are continuing the Zionist vision that founded the State of Israel. We will continue to settle the desolation, protect the land, and fight for every settlement.”