Why some settler leaders oppose building as a direct response to terror attacks

There is lingering concern that calls for construction as a tit-for-tat against terrorism — while politically expedient — imply expansion is less legitimate on other days

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli settlers arrive at the Eitam hilltop near Efrat on September 17, 2018 to establish a new neighborhood in response to the murder of Ari Fuld (Eliyahiv Kamchi)
Israeli settlers arrive at the Eitam hilltop near Efrat on September 17, 2018 to establish a new neighborhood in response to the murder of Ari Fuld (Eliyahiv Kamchi)

Less than 24 hours after a terror attack took the life of Ari Fuld last week, the mayor of the Efrat settlement — in which the 45-year-old father of four had resided — announced his community’s response.

“This morning we get up and charge forward,” Oded Revivi exclaimed in a Facebook post, vowing to develop a disputed hilltop adjacent to his community.

“We are heading to Eitam! Not as thieves in the night. But — like Ari — as proud Jews in the light of day. Because this land is ours!”

The post, while dramatic in tone, was typical for settler leaders and their supporters in the current government, who often call for extensive expansion beyond the Green Line in response to terrorism targeting the Jewish presence in the West Bank.

The hilltop on which the Eitam neighborhood would be constructed, with plans for units that would house thousands of Israelis, is located northeast of Efrat’s current borders.

The Peace Now settlement watchdog came out in vehement opposition to the project, arguing that it would represent a serious blow to a potential two-state solution, bisecting the West Bank and preventing territorial contiguity in a future Palestinian state.

But while such expansions naturally enjoy unanimous support among settler leaders, there is lingering concern among some regarding the juxtaposition of settlement building and terror attacks.

Palestinian violence provides convenient political cover for government attempts to avoid the international outcry that typically accompanies expansions of the Israeli presence in the West Bank. However, because the calls for construction are often framed as “punishment” for Palestinian attacks, they seem to imply that building on other days of the year are not as justified.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Sunday, Revivi attempted to disassociate Fuld’s murder from his efforts to build the Eitam neighborhood.

Ari Fuld, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist outside a West Bank shopping mall on September 16, 2018. (Facebook)

“We should be entitled to build all year round without [having to use such events as] justification… and we should never attach building to terror attacks,” he said.

Revivi pointed out that building permits for an agricultural farm at Eitam had been approved weeks before the attack and that the intention had been to inhabit the hilltop regardless.

A spokesman for the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction — corroborated Revivi’s account, confirming that no approvals had been granted in the 24 hours since the attack.

A sukkah on the Eitam hilltop near Efrat on September 23, 2018. (Elyashiv Kamchi)

The mayor’s Facebook post appeared to be an attempt to show resolve in the wake of an attack that targeted one of his town’s residents — even if it went against his own belief that construction should not be linked to terrorism.

The interim director of the Yesha settlement umbrella council, Yigal Dilmoni, downplayed the existence of a genuine debate among settler leaders over how construction should be framed.

Efrat Mayor Oded Revivi. (Avi Hyman Communications)

While he recognized that some have raised concern over the matter, Dilmoni rejected the implication that calls for construction in the wake of terror attacks are detrimental to other efforts to expand settlements.

“We are constantly building and struggling and pressuring for more construction every day of the year. However, when there is a terror attack, I think that every ordinary citizen and every person who is a Zionist understands that the answer is an equivalent blow [demonstrating] our connection to Israel,” he asserted, while calling for stronger military crackdowns in the wake of attacks.

Former Kedumim mayor Daniella Weiss’s views aligned with Dilmoni’s.

“It’s not as if anyone is coming out and saying that we should not be calling for construction because blood was just spilled,” said Weiss, who remains active in establishing outposts throughout the West Bank.

Israeli right-wing activist Daniella Weiss on February 13, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But one West Bank local council head who spoke on the condition of anonymity asserted that the only reason statements expressing disquiet over the issue were not being made publicly by settler leaders was the high political price they would pay.

“Nobody wants to be the one coming out and saying that we should not be building at any particular moment, but I am always careful to avoid making such public demands of the government after terror attacks, because it sets a dangerous precedent,” this council head said.

He said that his fellow settlement mayors are forced to fight for every project, and that “there is concern that those approvals will only come when it is politically convenient.”

Construction of new buildings in the Israeli settlement of Na’ale on February 8, 2017. (FLASH90)

Tzvi Succot, the director of the far-right Otzma Yehudit group, took a similar tone, asserting that “what will prevent attacks is not construction, but rather strong [military] deterrence.”

Succot, an influential member of the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, argued that in making building announcements following terror attacks, “the government is hinting that murder is equivalent to X number of building permits instead of a heavy blow to the enemy.”

However, he clarified that there was a difference between how settler leaders and government officials were expected to respond to violence.

Otzma Yehudit director Tzvi Succot. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“That a council head uses a terror attack to get more construction in his town is something I can understand. But when the government does it, that is much more flagrant,” he said, asserting that declarations by ministers should focus on security measures.

Security vs. safety

Settler leaders tend to frame their demands in terms of security when working to garner government support for civil projects — even ones unrelated to housing.

Last year, Samaria Regional Council Chairman Yossi Dagan erected a protest tent outside the official residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, calling on the government to transfer hundreds of millions of shekels for the paving of West Bank roads and other infrastructure.

While demands for additional highways, street lighting, and better roadside cell reception might more naturally be framed as matters of safety, Dagan chose to present them as matters of national security, tying them to terrorism and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Joining him in the campaign, which included a five-day hunger strike, were representatives of families that lost loved ones in terror attacks over the Green Line.

Likely due to the presence of the bereaved families, Dagan managed to enlist the support of more than a dozen right-wing lawmakers and ministers, who paid visits to the bereaved family representatives in the tent, despite the fact that it had been erected in protest of their own government’s policies.

Shomron regional council head Yossi Dagan, Beit Aryeh regional council Avi Naim, and Hadas Mizrahi at a protest tent set up outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on November 5, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After several weeks, the demonstration ended with a document signed by Netanyahu that put in writing a promise from the prime minister of a NIS 800 million ($228 million) infrastructure package that went on to be part of the 2018 budget.

Noticeably absent from the protest was the Yesha Council, which chose to work with the government behind closed doors in order to ensure the transfer of the infrastructure funds.

Though the Council insisted after the fact that the money was earmarked despite — rather than due to — Dagan’s more combative approach, the headlines implied otherwise: Dagan’s choice to link his demands to terror attacks had won the day.

(From L-R) Yesha Council leaders Shilo Adler, Hananel Dorani, and Yigal Dilmoni at their office in Jerusalem, on May 9, 2018. (Flash90)

As with construction in the wake of terror attacks, it is easier for settler leaders to garner support for infrastructure improvements when they are tied to terrorism: Security trumps safety.

Theoretically, bad cell reception in the West Bank is no different from bad cell reception anywhere inside the Green Line. But the risk of terror attacks against settler targets underlines the imperative to ensure Israelis in the West Bank can reliably reach security forces for help in emergencies.

From a real estate perspective, framing campaigns regarding civil affairs over the Green Line around the issues of security may play into the assumption — to which settler leaders vehemently object — that the West Bank is a dangerous place to live.

Succot rejected the notion that such a concern should be taken seriously, arguing that interest among Israelis in moving across the Green Line is only increasing. “If more building permits would be approved, I’m sure there would be many more people coming to move here,” he said.

Police investigates at the scene of the terror attack where Ari Fuld was killed by a Palestinian teen in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, September 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

But Dilmoni appeared to be aware of the problems stemming from playing up the importance of the security situation in the West Bank.

“When we have to deal with terrorism, we focus on dealing with terrorism, and when we have to deal with [affairs of] every-day life, we focus on everyday life,” he said of the Yesha Council’s approach.

While the violent death of an Israeli father while running errands in the mall makes a differentiation between military and civilian affairs over the Green Line more difficult to maintain, such a distinction makes sense given the Yesha Council’s desire to entice more residents.

This is especially true if the movement is to realize its goal of bringing the number of settlers in the West Bank from 450,000 to one million.

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