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Since Israel's moratorium on settlement construction expired, settlers are stretching borders

GILAD FARM, West Bank

Within a few miles of this windy, rocky hilltop live thousands and thousands of Palestinians. But Yehuda Shimon doesn't call them Palestinians. He calls them Arabs, and he considers them intruders on what he says is the God-given land of the Jews. Millions of Arabs would vehemently disagree. Shimon doesn't care.

Over the past eight years, Shimon's family and 70 others have lugged old trailers and rusty shipping containers up the mountain and started a new Jewish community named Gilad Farm. It's a rough-looking place meant to send a message to the Palestinians below.

"Our point in living here is to tell our government and all governments that Israel is for the Jews, not for the Arabs,'' says Shimon, a burly lawyer with a bushy black beard. "Our fathers walked here and this place is ours.''

Since Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in 1967, more than 300,000 Jews have moved into the region in an attempt to expand Israel's borders miles beyond those recognized by other countries. The settlers call the West Bank by its Biblical name — "Judea and Samaria" — and say the entire area belongs to Israel and is essential for Israel's defense.

But Palestinians say the 121 Jewish settlements — ranging from tiny outposts like Gilad Farm to substantial towns like Ariel — were illegally built on occupied land and should be removed. The settlements have been so strategically placed, critics say, that they make it impossible for Palestinians to move about freely, let alone have a viable nation of their own.

As President Barack Obama tries to ratchet up peace talks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would extend a 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction — if Palestinians recognized Israel. They immediately refused. So in the three weeks since the freeze expired, Jewish settlers have awakened to a sound they hope to hear for decades to come — bulldozers clearing West Bank land for even more new Jewish houses and apartments.

• • •

If Israelis and Palestinians ever make peace, the largest settlements, with 30,000 or more people, probably would be annexed to Israel. Palestinians would get other land in return, perhaps in Israel's southern deserts.

The future is less clear for midsized settlements like Ariel, located deep in the West Bank about 25 miles east of Tel Aviv.

Since its founding in 1978, Ariel has grown into a self-contained city with schools, stores, restaurants, parks and a university. A new cultural center opens next month but, showing the widely divergent attitudes Israelis have about the settlements, dozens of Jewish artists have vowed to boycott it.

Among Ariel's 20,000 residents are Avi Sharabi, a native Israeli, and his American-born wife, Sharona. They recently moved from South Florida with their seven children.

"Here they are free like birds,'' Sharona Sharabi says. "It's not like Florida. Here they can walk to school. They can go anywhere.''

Avi Sharabi still spends much of his time in Florida, where the family has two falafel restaurants and a house on the market. But even with the plane fare, the Sharabis figure they save money by living in a settlement rather than in a large Israeli city.

The cheaper cost of living also drew thousands of Russian Jews to Ariel after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. More people came in 2005 when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel couldn't afford to keep settlements in the Gaza Strip, and ordered 7,000 Jews to leave.

Some 80 families resettled in Ariel. They live in beat-up caravans, or trailers, not far from where dozens of new homes will soon emerge from the dusty earth. They have no intention of moving again, especially not to make way for Palestinians.

"There are about 21 Arab countries they can go to,'' said Tammy Silberschein, fixing lunch for her six kids. "There's only one Jewish country.''

Even with the Gaza arrivals, construction freezes have kept Ariel's population stagnant for years. To bulk up its numbers, the city is offering temporary housing and other incentives to lure North American Jews. The more people, the less chance Ariel will go the way of Gaza, residents say.

And in one of those uncomfortable realities of the settlement controversy, many Palestinians would miss Ariel, too.

Just outside of town, scores of Israeli-owned factories employ thousands of Palestinians.

Though a Palestinian boycott of settlement-made products led to layoffs, Palestinians still on the job earn about $1,000 a month. That's considerably more than they would in their villages.

"The truth is, I work here and I'm glad to work here,'' says Raid Salman, a 15-year veteran of a factory that makes disposable uniforms. He supervises 40 other Palestinians, including two of his brothers and an uncle.

Another employee, Said Samarh, has no complaints about the factory. But part of his pay went to hire a lawyer after the Israeli army said he built his home illegally outside his village.

"They want to destroy my house,'' he said.

Palestinians have long complained that the army itself illegally grabbed thousands of acres of Arab land to build settler roads and Israel's security barrier. Though suicide bombings have dropped to near zero since the barrier went up, settlers insist that places like Ariel are needed as buffers against Palestinian rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and other coastal cities.

"Without a significant waistline, Israel cannot defend itself,'' says Avi Zimmerman, executive director of American Friends of Ariel.

But Peace Now, an Israeli organization opposed to the settlements, notes that Ariel juts so far into the West Bank that tens of thousands of Palestinians live closer to Tel Aviv than the Jewish settlers do.

"How could this be a guarantee of anything?'' asks Hagrit Ofran, head of Peace Now's settlement watch program. "If, God forbid, there were an invasion from the other side, the settlers will not be any protection for Israel, but a burden.''

• • •

Twenty minutes north of Ariel, one of the oldest settlements, is Gilad Farm, one of the newest.

In 2001, a Jewish security guard named Gilad Zar was on patrol in the area when Palestinians ambushed and killed him. Some friends and relatives moved onto an empty hilltop and established an outpost in his memory.

Three years ago, Yehuda Shimon — Zar's brother-in-law — moved his family from Jerusalem and joined the group.

"When the government decided to take Jews out of Gaza, it made us angry,'' says Ilana Shimon, who recently gave birth to the couple's seventh child. "We thought, 'This is the moment to move and get the settlements stronger.' ''

Though the views are spectacular — on a clear day the Mediterranean Sea shimmers in the distance — the outpost looks like a trash dump. Construction debris and old furniture litter the rocky soil. Many families are still crammed into 500-square-foot caravans.

Unlike Ariel, which has the legal authority of other Israeli cities, the government considers Gilad Farm an illegal outpost and provides no services. Power is from generators. Water is delivered twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday, by a private company.

Like other settlements, though, Gilad Farm gets help from outsiders — Jews who support the settlement movement and evangelical Christians who believe the nation of Israel will play a major role at the "end time." Some people in Toronto gave $50,000. The playground was a gift from the Resurrection Fellowship in Loveland, Colo. The Shimons' new kitchen was donated, too.

The settlers also sell olive oil for 30 shekels a bottle, about $8, and have a factory that makes windows, walls, floors — everything needed to assemble a caravan and provide instant settlement housing.

Two years ago, the Israeli military, which has jurisdiction over all settlements in the West Bank, said the factory was illegal and ordered Gilad Farm to tear it down. The factory is still there. And as soon as the construction freeze expired last month, it began cranking out parts for 20 more caravans.

"That's been the situation in the West Bank for 40 years,'' says Ofran of Peace Now. "The settlers violate the law in many ways with the blind eye or even the consent of the authorities.''

The settlers of Gilad Farm have a difficult relationship with their Palestinian neighbors. The settlers accuse the Palestinians of stealing their horses. The Palestinians accuse the settlers of stealing not only their horses but also their cows.

And on a recent morning, Palestinian farmers who set out to harvest their olives complained that the Israeli army failed to protect them when the settlers threatened them with guns.

"The soldiers didn't do anything but watch, so the people went home,'' says Fares Turabi, mayor of Sarrah, a village near Gilad Farm. "The army does what it does to protect the settlers. Our life is more difficult because of the settlers.''

The very land on which Gilad Farm sits is itself the source of friction. Palestinians say it is Arab land that was illegally obtained by Moshe Zar, an ardent Zionist and father of the slain Gilad Zar.

In the '80s, the elder Zar briefly went to prison for driving the getaway car in a bombing that so badly injured the mayor of a nearby Arab city that he lost his legs. Zar was a member of the Jewish underground, which plotted to blow up Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy place built on the site of the second Jewish Temple.

Now in his 70s, Zar lives in a palatial home a few hilltops away from the settlement named for his son. He is a friend and client of Shimon, who still commutes from Gilad Farm to his law office in Jerusalem.

Zar "is a very good man'' and had nothing to do with the plot to bomb the Dome of the Rock, Shimon says. Not that he sees anything wrong with destroying it. "For Jews this is the holiest place. For Arabs it is nothing.''

Even many Israelis consider such views extremist. Shimon says he doesn't care. His aim — like that of other settlers — is to establish such an overwhelming Jewish presence in the West Bank that Arabs won't want to stay in Jerusalem or any other part of the biblical land of Israel.

"They came here to live with us,'' he says. "They know that some day we will kick them out.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Since Israel's moratorium on settlement construction expired, settlers are stretching borders 10/15/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 17, 2010 1:26pm]
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