Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Outpost

After six kilometers bouncing along a dusty gravel road, we finally pulled over the last hilltop and came to a stop. To call this place a "neigborhood" is to call Motel 6 a "luxury hotel." My feet crunching on the gravel, I took a cursory survey. Four visible trailers, a sheep pen, playground, synagogue, ratty olive trees, wandering turkeys, drip irrigation systems, and a guard tower, all fighting to stay upright in the driving wind.

And of course there were the hills. Some green, some rocky, some desert. Hills and rocks forever. Smells of hay and sheep dung waft over from the pen. Besides the whistling of the breeze over the jagged stones and a few baying sheep, there is not a sound. So this is the new neighborhood of Elon Moreh South.

The Sheep Pens and the hills

Of course, the term "neighborhood" is entirely tounge-in-cheek. Since the signing of the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s envisioned the eventual destruction of Jewish settlement beyond the green line, the first of many "confidence building measures" undertaken by Israel was to cease buildng new outposts, the only remaining permissible building permitted was to account for "natural growth" of existing settlements until their eventual abandonement. Despite the Palesitinan repudiation of the Oslo Accords over six years ago, the Israelis, still being judicial Jews at heart, needed some legal framework to hold on to, so new outposts are now "neighborhoods" of existing ones.

Sasha next to one of the trailers.

The residents fit the typical stereotype that comes to mind when you say "settler." Blue jeans, t-shirts, big yarmulkes, beards, guns, and litters of babies.

"A few months ago there was an attack here," Sasha tells me, "The terrorist came in from the east. He started blasting one of the homes with his machine gun. He wasn't taking aim, just shooting at random. The walls are paper thin, so if anyone was in there, he would have been killed. Thank God, one of the settlers killed him first. Look at them! They're little Yeshivah (religious seminary) boys. You wouldn't think they'd have it in them."

Bullet holes in one of the trailers.

Sasha and I approach one of the "yeshivah boys," nailing a chicken-wire grate to his staircase railing.

"How are things?" Sasha asks him.


"How much guard duty are you guys doing?"

"Three hour shifts, rotating."

"Maybe I can get it down to an hour. We could bring in volunteers."

"We'll see. But it can't be just anyone. He has to know what a gun is. How to use it. How to stay awake."

He goes back to his chicken-wire, while Sasha and I keep exploring.

Sasha talks to the locals.

"The police," he explains, "don't like us. We could take some of the boys from the Yeshivah back in Elon Moreh and get some help here, but I'm worried. If the police see guards or helpers wearing kippot (religious head coverings,) they will think that boys under the settlers' influence and treat them just as badly."

Taking a moment to think, he devises a plan. The settlement can enlist Russians. There are very few religious Russians, Sasha being one of the few exceptions I'll meet. Despite their arch-secularism, Russians tend to be quite nationalist and make great soldiers. Perhaps the police will be more forgiving if they are dealing with secular kids.

The synagogue.

The Playground

But there is a cloud hanging over this new outpost, and to a lesser extent Elon Moreh and all of Israel.

"Will this place survive?" I ask.

"It depends. If we can stay here long enough, yes. We may have problems with Peace Now. With Hamas. With Prime Minister Olmert. If they decide to destroy this place, as they have in the past, then there isn't much we can do to stop them. We will protest. We'll be arrested, and then they'll wreck it. But maybe they won't.

The Sheep Pen

Wandering to the sheep pen, one can see the ridiculousness of the politics surrounding this place. This is a group of families, trying to build a farm on a deserted, windswept hilltop. The landscape feels like a nowhere town, like 20 miles outside of Merced, California. But in Merced, a couple of Jews trying to build a farm wouldn't raise an eyebrow. In Israel, this is the heart of the conflict. Peace now, financed by the European Union, keeps careful track of the settlements, supplying areal photographs and records to the American administration to undermine Israel's position in negotiations. And most Israelis would prefer these places go away themselves. In addition to the data provided by Peace Now, the Americans also keep regular tabs on these hilltops with spy satellites. A decade ago Bill Clinton demanded that Jewish growth in these areas cease beacause American satellites had detected no heat radiating from some new buildings, indicating that Israel was building more homes than it could fill, violating the "natural growth" principle. There are, of course, the routine near-unanimous condemnations of Israel in the United Nations. And that's not to mention the trillions of petrodollars pumped into the conflict by Saudi Arabia and Iran, financing the physical attacks from some of the neigboring villages.

Peace Now areal photography of the site at the beginning of its construction.

But for the residents of Elon Moreh South, the bullseye painted on their town is invisible. What really matters here? The sheep need shearing. A drip irrigation pipe is broken. One of the children is sick and needs medicine. What does the future hold? The world will keep turning, and God alone will decide.

Looking over the ridgeline at the Tirtzah Valley

No comments: