At Trump’s Jewish ‘enclaves,’ fear of Palestinian encirclement, plans to expand

Settler leaders vow to enlarge the 15 West Bank settlements that under US president’s proposal would become sovereign Israeli islands in a potential Palestinian state

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The Itamar Yeshiva in the Itamar settlement on January 30, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
The Itamar Yeshiva in the Itamar settlement on January 30, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

ITAMAR, West Bank — To reach the northern West Bank settlement of Itamar, Israelis must travel along Route 60, the main north-south artery beyond the Green Line.

Much of the winding highway consists of just one lane in each direction, is poorly lit, and includes segments as long as several kilometers where cellphone reception drops completely — a particularly dangerous shortcoming given the regular incidents of stone-throwing at flashpoint junctions, including near Itamar.

While the government has recently begun paving “bypass roads” for settlers living in the Nablus-surrounding “Gav HaHar” communities of Yitzhar, Elon Moreh, Har Bracha and Itamar, those plans only cover small sections of Route 60.

But under the Trump peace plan released Tuesday, settlers living in the Gav HaHar (Hebrew for “back of the mountain”) will receive exclusive access routes connecting them to the rest of Israel — a significant improvement over the bypass roads currently in the works.

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

Such highways will be necessary because the US proposal envisions those four settlements, along with 11 others throughout the West Bank, becoming “enclaves” almost completely surrounded by a future Palestinian state.

These communities will come under full Israeli sovereignty — a longtime goal of the settlement movement, which many believed would at most be achieved for towns closer to the Green Line. Accordingly, the roughly 14,000 residents of these 15 settlements have hailed the deal as a major step forward.

However, while the Trump administration may be expecting them to accept the enclave-status the plan envisions for them, they have no intention of doing so.

Expanding the enclaves

For much of the Israeli right, the peace plan that US President Donald Trump introduced alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House this week was a dream come true.

It envisions all settlements coming under full Israeli sovereignty, along with large swaths of surrounding land making up some 30 percent of the West Bank. This, while placing so many conditions on the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state — including that it remain under overall Israeli security control — that few expect it to ever come about.

However, in order to form such Palestinian entity, the plan’s architects, who include key officials known for their ties to the settlement movement, appeared to recognize that Israeli growth in some areas beyond the pre-1967 Green Line would have to be capped at some point.

The Itamar settlement on January 30, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

While the plan manages to include just about all settlements within the expanded future contours of Israel, 15 communities deep in the West Bank proved too big a challenge to overcome. The “enclaves” represent a compromise to that obstacle.

“The Israeli population located in enclaves that remain inside contiguous Palestinian territory but that are part of the State of Israel shall have the option to remain in place unless they choose otherwise, and maintain their existing Israeli citizenship. They will have access routes connecting them to the State of Israel. They will be subject to Israeli civilian administration, including zoning and planning, within the interior of such Israeli enclaves. They will not be discriminated against and will have appropriate security protection. Such enclaves and access routes will be subject to Israeli security responsibility,” the plan reads.

Little additional information is provided regarding these enclaves, but the plan expects Israel to refrain from expanding them “beyond their current footprint” over the next four years — the period allocated to the Palestinians to decide whether to accept the Trump proposal.

While some settler leaders have called this clause tantamount to a building freeze, the vague wording still allows for construction within the borders of these isolated settlements. Moreover, the application of Israeli sovereignty over those communities will allow for a swifter building process, devoid of the Defense Ministry approvals currently required due to their existence under military rule.

A mosque in the West Bank city of Nablus (foreground) and part of the Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh in the West Bank, December 7, 2016. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

This change gave settlers both in and outside those future enclaves much to celebrate.

“We must thank and praise God who rewarded us with the extension of the borders of our state,” said Gush Ezion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman in a Tuesday statement.

But Ne’eman, who lives in Karmei Tzur, one of the 15 proposed enclaves, made clear that he would fight against portions of the plan he opposes.

“One of the most important tasks ahead of us is to set as wide as possible the borders for these isolated communities during this interim period,” he said, publicly vowing to work against the clause barring “expanding the footprint” of the future enclaves.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan echoed his mayoral colleagues’ sentiments.

(From L-R) Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani in front of a Gush Etzion lookout point in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“We will not accept the establishment of a terror state in the heart of the country,” Dagan, the municipal leader of the Gav Hahar communities, said regarding the possibility of the eventual formation of a Palestinian state. “We will not accept the isolation of 15 communities, nor will we accept a planning freeze under any conditions.”

While Dagan praised Netanyahu for receiving American support for settlement annexation, he argued that “there is no law in the State of Israel that says that every detail of an American plan must be accepted.”

The West Bank mayors were joined by the Elon Moreh settlement, which issued a statement of its own vowing to fight against the plan by “deepening our roots in our ancestral land.”

The community’s spokesman Arye Arbus clarified to The Times of Israel that it was important to also thank the Trump administration for recognizing the Jewish people’s “moral right to Judea and Samaria,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.

The Itamar settlement on January 30, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

However, he called for creating additional facts on the ground that would prevent the isolation of the 15 enclaves envisioned by the Trump proposal.

“If this plan proves anything, it is that our [settlement] movement has been effective,” Arbus said, arguing that just as the proposal unveiled Tuesday had taken into account Israeli expansion beyond the Green Line over the past 52 years, it could continue to do so if Israel went on to widen its West Bank footprint.

Take it or leave it?

Is what the plan offers better than the current situation for settlers in those 15 communities?

Arbus argued that a Palestinian state would pose a far greater threat than today’s dangers for Elon Moreh and other communities surrounded by such a future entity.

“The fact that they say it will be demilitarized does not calm me in the slightest,” he said.

Students eat lunch at Yeshivat Itamar in the northern West Bank on January 30, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

In Itamar, Lital Michaeli had mixed feelings.

While in principle she opposes the formation of a Palestinian state, she admitted to being only minimally concerned by the prospect because she didn’t expect Ramallah to accept the Trump plan.

Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected Washington’s efforts outright, calling it the “slap of the century” and vowing it to consign it to “the dustbins of the history.”

“If we are treated no different than residents of any other town and are ensured security it might be something I’d be able to live with,” said Michaeli, a 33-year-old mother of four. “What’s most important for me is being able to wake up every day and get my kids safely to school.”

Moreover, Michaeli argued that Itamar already “feels like an isolated enclave.”

“I still have to go through a checkpoint when I leave Judea and Samaria” to enter sovereign Israeli territory, she said.

Itamar residents have been targeted in more than a handful of terror attacks in recent decades, including a particularly savage one in March 2011 when two terrorists entered the home of Rabbi Ehud Fogel and his wife Ruth and brutally murdered them and three of their six children — 11-year-old Yoav, four-year-old Elad and three-month-old Hadas.

Deadly attacks here since 2002 have claimed the lives of 15 other people, six of them children and teens.

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images/AFP)

Don’t ask me to accept it

The Trump plan appeared to be the topic of choice Thursday at a yeshiva on the outskirts of Itamar. Students and faculty could be heard debating how settler leaders should best respond to the proposal, as they made their way to the dining hall following a morning of learning.

The yeshiva’s chief rabbi, Yehoshua Van Dijk, spoke to The Times of Israel having just finished a lesson on the “religious perspective” of the Trump proposal.

“It’s complex. We’ve dreamed of sovereignty [over the settlements] for a long time. However, we came here not just for one town here or there, but based on our belief that all of this is ours, including Nablus,” he said of the Palestinian city several kilometers north of Itamar.

“I’m willing to thank them for recognizing my right to 30% of the land, but don’t think for a second that this means I’ve given up on the other 70%,” he added.

Former Likud MK Yehudah Glick, who lives in another one of the envisioned enclave communities, Otniel, was slightly more optimistic.

US Ambassador David Friedman (L) embraces Likud MK Yehudah Glick while making a consolation visit at his home in the West Bank settlement of Otniel on January 3, 2018. (Courtesy: Har Hebron Regional Council)

“Not everything is perfect, but if you ask me whether Tuesday was a day of celebration, I’ll tell you it was,” he said.

Moreover, he predicted that both the Israeli and US governments would work to ensure that communities like his would not actually end up as isolated enclaves.

“David paid a condolence visit to Otniel after my wife passed away,” Glick said, referring to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, one of the plan’s key architects.

“He knows how important these places are. I’m confident he’ll find a way to take care of them.”

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