(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff [file])
The three women wearing skirts and scarves who serenely sat under a canopy among the trees chatting as their children played underfoot at Maon Farm this week hardly seemed to be in the midst of what is likely to be the next outpost battle.
Earlier in the week, Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced he had placed Maon Farm, in the southern Hebron Hills, at the top of a list of four unauthorized outposts slated for evacuation within the next few weeks. He said he selected the four because their inhabitants had a history of violent clashes with either the IDF or neighboring Palestinians.
Situated among the trees in the small forest outside the settlement of Maon, Maon Farm doesn't have the typical outpost feel. Instead of the prefabricated, rectangular modular homes dotting a barren hilltop, the outpost consists of wooden and stone shacks built among the trees, as well as two homes off a dirt road on the other side of the forest.
By calling for the dismantling of Maon Farm and the three others, Peretz continued on the course set by his predecessor, Shaul Mofaz, who had already slated them for destruction two years ago.
In making past violence an issue when it comes to outpost demolition, Peretz steered away from prioritizing the 24 unauthorized outposts Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised the US he would dismantle based on diplomatic considerations.
Neither Maon Farm nor the remaining three - Scali Farm, Hill 725 and Givat Arusi - are on the list of 24, a fact that particularly angers the leaders of neighboring settlement Maon, who fear that their small community of 58 stucco single-family homes is about to be a stomping ground for the security forces and hordes of young activists likely to gather to defend the outpost.
Maon spokesman Dudu Eldar said police could arrest those who break the law without targeting the entire outpost, adding that he opposed this kind of "collective punishment."
"There are also violent people in Tel Aviv and no one is talking about destroying that city," said Eldar.
While Maon leaders were happy to speak about the folly of impending evacuation, residents of the neighboring outpost Maon Farm had no interest in talking with the media.
"They twist our words to fit their own agenda," said one youth with payot and a large kippa as he stood in the dirt driveway near one of the two homes located directly outside the forest in which most of the outpost's 11 families live.
Hanging from his porch was the flag of Judea, which some people sport to designate their desire for a sovereign Jewish state separate from Israel. In his identification with the flag, the young man differs from his neighbors in Maon who want to work within the framework of the Israeli state.
Both the young man and the Maon leaders were quick to point out that the two communities are entirely different in composition and structure. But when it comes to the issue of demolitions and evacuations, they see their fate as intertwined.
In Maon, they believe that to dismantle an outpost harms what they see as Israel's sovereign right to settle Judea and Samaria, a right that is disputed by the Israeli Left and the international community. Eldar and the head of the Maon secretariat, Bruno Darmon, said their future felt particularly fragile because Maon itself was one of at least 55 settlements located outside the security fence meant to separate Israeli communities from Palestinians ones.
"There is no doubt that we are next, after the outposts come down," said Darmon, a French immigrant who moved to Maon almost immediately upon arriving in Israel 19 years ago. A winemaker by trade, these days instead of simply enjoying the fruits of his labor, he has been galvanized into action by Peretz's plan, in hopes of saving Maon Farm and swaying the government to include his community within the fence.
"I will write letters to the prime minister, to the ministers, to the MKs and to whoever will listen," said Darmon.
Just after Peretz spoke on Sunday night, the Maon leadership met to set a course of protest action.
"Our fight will be a peaceful one," said Darmon. He said he had no desire to see in his own backyard the same scale of violence that broke out in early February when nine empty homes at the Amona outpost were demolished. Eighty-six security personnel and 150 activists were injured in clashes between the two groups.
"Whatever we do it will be within the law," said Darmon.
To underscore the delicate balance of separation and interconnection between the two communities, settlers in Maon and Maon Farm are working separately to prevent the demolition of the outpost.
"We do not know what their plans are," said Darmon. "But we have made our own."
He said their strategy involved speaking with the media as well as appeals to government officials.
This is not the first time that the decade-old outpost in the southern Hebron hills has been threatened. Initially located at another site in the Hebron Hills, it was dismantled by the IDF in 1999, at which time its residents moved to their current location in a small forest directly outside Maon. In 2004, Mofaz announced his intention to dismantle it, a move that was upheld by the High Court of Justice but was never carried out.
The outpost's history, in which it was taken down and resurrected, is every reason why the outpost should be at the top of the removal list, said Yariv Oppenheimer, spokesman for Peace Now, which advocates that all of the 105 outposts in Judea and Samaria be destroyed.
"This was an outpost that was evacuated in the past," said Oppenheimer. As such, allowing it to stand sent the wrong message to right-wing activists, he said. Similarly, he added, its history of violent actions also made it a legitimate target.
Taking it down would also send a clear message that violence is unacceptable, explained Oppenheimer, who argued that all the outposts were illegal and needed to come down.
Within that framework, there was a persuasive argument in favor of starting with outposts that had a history of extremism and violence, he said. Why reward those outposts by leaving them until the end, he asked.
In the past, Maon residents have been accused of allegedly poisoning the sheep and wells of the neighboring Palestinians. In 2004, one resident of the outpost was indicted for his involvement in trying to place a bomb outside a Palestinian girls' school in east Jerusalem. This spring, settlers have clashed with Palestinians who walk by their outpost on their way to school. There have also been skirmishes between settlers and soldiers protecting the Palestinian children.
In addition, the families in Maon Farm have upset the Jewish National Fund, which planted trees in the small forest where their homes are situated. A spokeswoman for the JNF said her organization had asked the families to leave, explaining that their presence there is not good for the trees, some of which were cut down to make way for the homes. The JNF had also lodged a complaint with the police.
But the secretary of Maon, Yoav Barak, said he believed that the settlers living in the forest helped improve security in the settlement itself, which felt imperiled by the neighboring Palestinians who also live scattered out among the large swath of barren hills.
"They [the settlers in Maon Farm] are watching our backs," Barak said.