outpost flag 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
With knapsacks and bottles of water, thousands of settlers on Sunday hiked to five empty hilltops in the West Bank and created five new outposts.
"It's our answer to [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice," said Datya Yitzhaki, one of the organizers of the event, referring to the US-sponsored Middle East peace meeting in November. Yitzhaki spent the day in a blue organizational tent on the road leading to Givat HaEitam, which is located within the municipal boundaries of Efrat.
The IDF said it was planning to evacuate the activists from the hilltops, but that the evacuation might be postponed until Monday due to the dozens of ongoing counterterror operations soldiers were conducting throughout the West Bank.
"Instead of fighting terror and continuing to keep Israeli cities safe, we now have to deal with the evacuation of the activists," a defense official said.
Settlers who assumed they would be immediately evacuated from the hilltops by security forces were surprised to discover that by nightfall, there were still dozens of activists at each of the sites.
While many of the thousands of hikers, who included families with babies and small children, had only intended to spend the day, a core group that included 25 families and many young teens had agreed to spend the night with an eye to setting up permanent encampments there. Many activists plan to return to the site on Monday.
While there are some 105 unauthorized outposts in the West Bank, they were all built before 2005. In the last two years, the only new outpost that has been established is at the site of the evacuated Homesh settlement, where young adults have been camped out for the last two months. The Homesh activists have also called for supporters to hike to their hilltop on Tuesday.
The newest initiative differs from the past construction of outposts in that all the sites chosen were on state land where construction could legally occur, but has not been authorized. The event was organized by a group calling itself Eretz Yisrael Faithful.
Standing on Givat HaEitam, looking at the Israeli flag set up by activists earlier that day and topped by the orange settler flag, organizer Nadia Matar said she was thrilled. An earlier attempt to settle the hilltop in July had been immediately rebuffed by security forces. She had thought it would take many more attempts before they would get this far.
But on Sunday, activists - including Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin - used stones to build a two-foot-high outline of a new synagogue at the site.
"This strengthens us," said Matar. As she spoke, she was interrupted by a number of teens looking to figure out how sleeping arrangements would be divided between boys and girls. One young woman asked her to help two other women who were lost in the hilltops.
Behind her, a number of border policemen hung outside their van, which was parked on the site.
Frustrated by the ease with which the settlers achieved their initial objectives on Sunday, MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) called upon the government to immediately evacuate the activists.
"The settlers' continued presence in the illegal outposts erected on Sunday proves the government's weakness and defeatism in the West Bank," Paz-Pines said. "The government must use a firm hand with those who break the law and act to evacuate them immediately. Meanwhile, the Israeli government merely blinks [at the situation] and is not even able to evacuate a single home. This is a government that just barks, but doesn't bite."
Not everything went easily on Sunday. A policeman was lightly injured and four right-wing activists were arrested during afternoon clashes between the activists and security forces near the settlement of Hashmonaim.
Police also arrested a Palestinian who was carrying a large knife. He was transferred to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for further questioning. But that didn't stop dozens of people from remaining overnight, according to Yitzhaki.
National Union MK Aryeh Eldad, who joined the activists outside of Hashmonaim on Sunday, accused the IDF of acting the same way it had ahead of the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
"Instead of fighting Israel's enemies, the IDF has become a political army," Eldad said. "The failures of the next war are already written on the wall."
At Hill 1013 near Halhoul in the Hebron region, the clashes broke out after police tried demolishing three temporary structures that had been built there. Still, some 80 people and six families camped out there for the night, said Yitzhaki.
Outside of Kedumim, by nightfall, activists were able to move into five empty structures and even nailed a mezuza to the doorpost.
They were joined by musician Ariel Zilber, who held an impromptu concert there.
"The police didn't disturb us," one 17-year-old, Yishai Gilad, told The Jerusalem Post by phone on Sunday night. He said they had bottles of water and mattresses to sleep on.
Outside of Elon Moreh, some 40 activists were able to move into three abandoned buildings.
At Givat HaEitam, hundreds of hikers easily walked past the soldiers stationed at the open gate leading to the site, which is an hour's hike from the settled portions of the Efrat community in Judea.
While soldiers camped out around the hilltop and a few were even stationed at the site, they did not interfere with the activists, who set up sleeping bags and hung out around a bonfire, which lit up the darkness.
Among them was Aryeh Blumberg, 51. The father of four brought along water, food, an air mattress, a flashlight, a prayer book and tallit, as well as a sweater to keep him warm.
He said he had hiked up to the site for the same reason he had come to Israel from the US 25 years ago. "God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. It is a positive commandment from the Torah to settle it," he said.
As he spoke with the Post, Rabbi Menahem Borenstein from Jerusalem gave the same message to the activists.
"The time has come to build. The only way we are going to have peace is when we go back to our roots," he said.
Those who hiked back to Efrat stopped to exchange pleasantries with the border policemen they saw along the way.
One young officer told the activists, including Borenstein, that he didn't understand why they wanted to settle an area that was so dangerous.
Pointing to the lights from the buildings of Efrat, Borenstein told the officer that some 30 years ago, another border policeman who was old enough to be his father had stood there. He, too, had told the activists who worked to create the settled portions of Efrat that the area was dangerous.
"But now," he said, "no one worries about going to Efrat. Soon they won't be concerned about Givat HaEitam either."