Battle for the ‘settlement blocs’

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When the Sharon government decided to expel all Jews from Gaza, their communities' physical isolation and the fact that they were fenced-in and thus geographically limited, eased the work of the evacuation forces both during the planning and implementation of their mass expulsion.

 

Today for residents of Judea and Samaria as well as for those on the Left who seek their uprooting, the successful expulsion of Gazan Jews has raised a number of questions regarding the government's plans for erecting the security fence around communities in the areas. On the one hand, residents of settlements not included in the fence route contend with the fact that from the perspective of the political Left – including the Sharon-Peres government and the Supreme Court – Israel is less than likely to demand the inclusion of their communities within the borders of sovereign Israel in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. For those whose communities are included in the fence route, the question becomes what the route of the planned fence says about the government's intention to enable their growth and prosperity and to guarantee their security.

 

When addressing non-leftist audiences, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon loudly extols his commitment to the preservation of what he refers to as “settlement blocs” in Judea and Samaria. Sharon ostentatiously points to the letter he received from US President George W. Bush in April 2004 where the subject of Israel's final borders is vaguely discussed. The letter is presented as a sort of trophy meant to prove Sharon's Zionist bona fides to the majority of Israelis who categorically reject the return to Israel's indefensible frontiers along the 1949 armistice lines. Yet beyond his evocations of non-existent American guarantees and vague declarations of fealty to Israel's right to our ancestral lands in Judea and Samaria, Sharon has never specifically delineated what he means when he refers to settlement blocs.

 

Given Sharon's silence on the subject, the best way to test his intentions is to visit the proposed route of the security fence in Gush Etzion – one of the settlement blocs that Sharon insists will always remain part of Israel. Work on the security fence around Gush Etzion, located just south of Jerusalem, is scheduled to begin immediately after the High Holy Days.

 

Three disturbing conclusions arise from a survey of the proposed route. First, in spite of Sharon's protestations to the contrary, the route of the fence shows that he has no intention of preserving the entire settlement bloc. Many of the communities inside of the Gush Etzion Regional Council – like Karmei Tzur in the south and Nokdim and Tekoa in the east – are excluded from the fence route. Aside from that, the route gives priority to Arab property rights over both Jewish property rights and the security needs of the 50,000 Israelis who live in the area. The following examples illustrate this disturbing truth.

 

The community of Bat Ayin does not have a security fence. Distinct from the other communities in Gush Etzion, Bat Ayin was conceived and developed along the view that its best guarantee of security and prosperity is for its land to be settled sparsely along the wide expanse of the Judean hills rather than densely and in a limited geographical area.

 

This view has enabled the community to grow and secure itself rather well. Yet, the route of the security fence will artificially wreck Bat Ayin's ability to protect itself. The planned route places the fence no more than a couple of dozen meters outside the houses of the community's residents on the incline separating their homes from the wadi below. The route excludes the hilltop immediately across the valley from Bat Ayin and so puts the homes of the residents within assault rifle range of terrorists. Fenced into their community, the residents will have no ability to deter attackers or to pursue those who shoot from outside the fence.

 

Aside from that, the land that is set to be placed on “the Arab side” of the fence includes 400 dunams of privately owned Jewish land bought for Gush Etzion by the JNF in the early 1940s. As well, thousands of dunams of state land, cultivated by the JNF, is set to be transferred to “the Arab side.” The effective mass seizure of these lands is justified by the government as a way of ensuring that the residents of the small Arab village of Jabah (which is controlled by Hamas), will be able to cultivate a few dozen dunams of olive groves.

 

Today Gush Etzion is connected to sovereign Israel by Route 367 which connects it to the center of the country, and by Highway 60 which connects it to Jerusalem. Route 367 today runs south of Jabah.

 

The plans for the security fence involve investing some NIS 100 million in order to move Route 367 to Jabah's north. This is to be accomplished in order to connect Jabah to the Arab village Beit Tzurif (which is also controlled by Hamas), and to leave both villages out of the fence route. The new road will be located on a narrow mountain ridge beneath Jabah and all motorists traveling along the road will immediately be exposed targets for any terrorist wishing to shoot a Jew from the village. As Daniel Winston from Bat Ayin puts it, “We'll be like fish in a barrel.”

 

As to Highway 60, across from the northern entrance to Efrat is a hilltop that controls the highway. The route of the security fence is set to transfer control over the top of this hill to the Palestinians. As a result, anyone entering Efrat from Highway 60 will be exposed to attack.

 

Last month Gush Etzion's Regional Council sent a letter to the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria laying out the residents' concerns regarding the proposed route of the fence. The response they received in a letter dated September 20 from the Civil Administration's legal adviser was as revealing as it was alarming.

 

“The goal of the security fence is to prevent penetration into these communities, and is not being designed to prevent shooting at the communities,” the legal adviser noted. But the sad truth is that the current route does not simply not prevent shooting attacks, it invites them.

 

When residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion – the original community in Gush Etzion, which was built in the 1930s, destroyed by the Jordanian Legion in the War of Independence and then rebuilt in 1967 – were given the details of the proposed route of the fence, they published a declaration on September 24 where they stated, “The proposed route of the separation fence around the communities of Gush Etzion is a terrible solution that harms both Jews and Arabs. As a result we are relinquishing it and ask to substitute it with alternative security methods that are being planned for communities in Judea and Samaria.”

 

Following Kfar Etzion's declaration, the heads of the regional and local councils of Gush Etzion, Beitar Illit and Efrat met this week and published their own statement. There they announced they are “demanding that the Minister of Defense not conduct any work on the route of the security fence until the debate between the area residents and the security establishment has been completed.”

 

In addition to the government's approved fence route, the ultra-leftist Council for Peace and Security, which is financed by the European Union and the New Israel Fund and headed by Major Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, has its own proposed route for the security fence around Gush Etzion.

The council's route is relevant because on several occasions in the past, the council has petitioned the Supreme Court and demanded changes in the government's route. Its past petitions have been warmly received by the politicized court that has adopted its routes in spite the IDF's strenuous assertions that they endanger Israel&
#39;s security. The court has defended its decisions by adopting the council's view that Palestinian property rights should be given priority over Israel's security and Jewish property rights.

 

In the council's proposed route, the security fence would surround Efrat on the east and west effectively turning it into a ghetto. Indeed, the route would ghettoize all the Jewish communities in the region and connect them to one another by narrow corridors, transferring all the outlying areas to Arab control. In spite of the vast differences in geography and topography, the council's route would effectively transform Gush Etzion, on the southern border of Jerusalem, into a second Gush Katif – fenced-in communities with no ability to expand.

 

Shaul Goldstein, the head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, believes that the residents must try to cooperate with the IDF and the government in an effort to change the proposed route of the fence. In his view, if Gush Etzion follows the line set out by residents of Kfar Etzion and rejects the fence completely, the result will be to dry up industry, investment and tourism in the region. Goldstein also fears that in the absence of the fence, prospective new residents will opt not to move to the area and current residents will opt to move away out of fear that the area will be uprooted in the future.

 

At the same time, Goldstein believes that if the government does not change the proposed route of the fence, Gush Etzion will have no choice other than to reject the fence in its entirety because of the security threats that emanate from the current route. In such a scenario, the residents of Gush Etzion will be forced to fight a political battle against the widespread assumption that all areas not located within the route of the fence will eventually be transferred – Judenrein – to Palestinian control.

 

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, the dispute over Gush Etzion's fence will have long-term significance for the future of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria as well as in east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. As the battle unfolds three things will become clear. First, the Sharon-Peres government's attitude towards the fence route will clarify what the government's actual intentions are in terms of preserving and enabling the security and prosperity for Sharon's so-called “settlement blocs” in Judea and Samaria.

 

Second, the IDF's stance regarding the fence route and its willingness, as the statutory body responsible for ensuring Israel's security, to stand up to the Supreme Court in defense of Israel's right to defensible borders (which necessarily must be beyond the indefensible 1949 armistice lines), will establish a precedent for the long-term dispute over all Israeli claims to sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.

 

Finally, in the wake of the failure of the leadership of the Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza to prevent the destruction of the communities in Gaza and northern Samaria this summer, the political strength of these leaders vis-a-vis the government and state on the one hand and the public on the other is again about to be tested. No matter how the battle pans out, its results will form the basis for all future battles regarding Israel's sovereign borders. 

 

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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