As Avigdor Lieberman enters the government, his neighbors in the outpost of Ma'aleh Rehavam are being threatened with eviction. What, if anything, will the new deputy prime minister do?
A lone soldier manning the entrance to Nokdim peeks perfunctorily into our car before pressing the button which operates the heavy yellow barrier at the entrance to the settlement. Colorful signs on either side flutter as the gate slides open. "Ten years of mortgage aid," read the ads, offering attractive real estate incentives from the government-affiliated construction firm, Amana.
A stranger to the politics of the region might be puzzled by these posters, with the spectacular sight of the Judean hills and ancient castle of Herodion in the background. Why anyone would need enticement - financial or otherwise - to purchase such a priceless view would be beyond the comprehension of most property assessors. If they were Californians, that is. Or from Mars - possibly the only place left in the universe that hasn't taken a stance on this particular area, referred to by some as "the West Bank," and others as "Judea and Samaria."
Nor would a layman easily be able to make head or tail of the other, less visible complexities of this territory. Or of the often seeming contradictions connected to government policy regarding Jews settling Arab-inhabited lands - a policy that has been as inconsistent and incongruous over the years as the different cabinet coalitions that have created and shaped it.
A case in point is disengagement and its aftermath. In the summer of 2005, Ariel Sharon evacuated all Jews from their homes in Gaza. This was the same Sharon who, until running for prime minister, had been a major promoter of Jewish settlement as a geopolitical tool. Since then, events keep happening that make it hard even for experts to keep track of their own positions.
The recent war against Hizbullah in Lebanon contributed to the confusion. While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's performance during, and subsequent to, the fighting prompted widespread criticism and a drastic fall in his and his government's popularity, it also put the lid on his realignment plan.
The notion that unilateral withdrawal - attempted in Lebanon and Gaza, and contemplated for the West Bank - could guarantee tranquility lay smashed in the rubble of thousands of Katyusha and Kassam rockets.
The various policy shifts and changing public attitudes partly explain why Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman's joining the government this week has caused such a stir. Considered a right-wing, "racist" fanatic by the Left, and a dangerous champion of total separation (i.e. additional, further withdrawals) from the Arabs by the Right, the 1978 immigrant from Moldova - who garnered a whopping 11 Knesset seats in the last election - seems to be in a category all his own.
Which may be why the residents of Nokdim, where Lieberman lives, are in no particular mood to help define or explain him. Indeed, they are strikingly reticent to discuss their veteran neighbor and newly-appointed deputy prime minister with the press.
"We're suspicious of the media," says K., who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. "A couple of years ago, a reporter came here and said, 'You're about to be kicked out [left behind the separation fence]; what do you have to say about that?' That's the general attitude toward us. That's why we prefer to remain at arm's length. Furthermore, the way public figures are being treated right now is not something we want to be part of."
Sitting in the synagogue of the settlement, next door to the community's secretariat, K. only grudgingly agrees to so much as mention Lieberman: "There's very little I can tell you about him; I don't see him a lot. As for his policies, everybody's entitled to view them as they like. We wish him the best of luck. We're not looking for someone to serve our personal interests. We're looking for someone who will serve the interests of the country, and we hope he will do that."
IF THE bulletin boards on the walls of the building in which the interview is taking place are any indication, however, Lieberman's friends in Nokdim are unlikely to be celebrating his elevation to ministerial status, especially since it boosts the life expectancy of the Olmert government.
A mimeographed memo harshly attacking Olmert (dated last February and signed by the Association of the Rabbis of Judea, Samaria and Gaza), is prominently displayed on one. An invitation to a conference honoring the late Meir Kahane is tacked on another. That the latter is hanging incongruously next to a hand-written offer, "New in Nokdim!!! Beauty and 'charm' treatments for women and girls," puts in colorful context that which K. is more than happy to impart about the 140-family community that Lieberman has placed in the limelight by virtue of his address.
"It is a pluralistic yishuv," K. describes. "It's made up of every kind of person: native Israelis, immigrants from all different countries, religious, secular and everything in between. There's no coercion of any kind. People here dress as they like. Some drive and play music on Shabbat, while others go to synagogue. Somebody can be walking to shul, and somebody else can be in a car, and they'll wave to one another."
This philosophy, K. explains, was imported from Tekoa, a nearby settlement where many Nokdim residents frequent the swimming pool and their children attend elementary school.
Tekoa is also indirectly responsible for Nokdim's establishment in 1982, due to the tragic deaths of two of its residents. David Rosenfeld, an American immigrant employed as a caretaker at the Herodion tourist site, was murdered by two Arab workers whom he knew and befriended. Eli Pressman, an immigrant from France, was killed in the first war in Lebanon.
As soon as Rosenfeld's funeral was over, six families from Tekoa pitched tents at the foot of Herodion - "which today would be called an outpost," reads a parenthetical phrase in a standard letter providing background information to new members of Nokdim.
"In those days," says K., in a dig at current anti-outpost policy, "establishing a settlement was regarded as an appropriate response to Arab terrorism - to show that Jews intend to live in Eretz Yisrael.
"The families lived in those tents for about six months, until moving to caravans in what is now Kfar Eldad [bordering on Nokdim]," K. continues. "That was the temporary site of what was then called 'El David' [named after Rosenfeld]. The Liebermans [Avigdor has a wife and three children] lived there in a caravan for several years, and when permanent housing was officially approved by the government in 1993, he and other families began building houses where we are now."
The government changed its name to "Nokdim" to avoid every new settlement's being named after someone who was murdered, and to attach appropriate historical/biblical significance to the place. Nokdim originates from the Book of Amos, according to which the prophet hailed from the nokdim [herdsmen] of Tekoa.
A GUARD in plain clothes stands outside a fortified booth that is blocking a full-frontal view of Lieberman's house, which appears to be somewhat larger than others on the same street. Lieberman lives here with his wife and two teenage sons; his eldest is married.
Catching sight of a camera and tape recorder, the guard steps away from his perch and approaches us with a stony look.
When we introduce ourselves as journalists, he retorts, "Oh, really, that isn't obvious," with a touch of Russian-accented sarcasm. Clearly he, too, is wary of our motive for being on the premises. Which may be why he indicates the presence of Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) reinforcement down the block. But he does soften enough to say that he likes life in Nokdim.
Directly opposite the Lieberman home is a large, grassy park and playground. It is completely empty, according to K., because all the children are at school.
"In the afternoon, it's jam-packed," she says.
At the opposite end of the park, one is able to see the expansive valley below. It is mostly bare, but for a few caravans dotting the hillside. These unimpressive, rather rundown-looking structures would hardly garner a glance (let alone warrant a special trip down a dangerously bumpy dirt road to get a closer look), if they weren't among similar clusters in this part of the country that are at the core of a major internecine and international controversy.
This particular makeshift micro-village, or "outpost," is Ma'aleh Rehavam. And what makes it stand out in a proverbial crowd this week - like Nokdim above it - is its connection to Lieberman.
The irony - like the picturesque panorama of the Judean desert - is astounding.
In September, after Olmert announced the shelving of realignment due to the events in the North, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik sent letters to the heads of the opposition parties, urging them to join a national emergency government. Lieberman responded by stipulating the conditions under which he would do so. Among his conditions was a freeze on the dismantling of outposts.
Last week, a mere month later, two things happened simultaneously: Lieberman said he would enter the government; and Ma'aleh Rehavam residents received their walking papers. This, according to political pundits, was not coincidental. It was rather Defense Minister Amir Peretz's way of flexing his muscles at the man he fears is about to step on his beat - since Lieberman's job will be to "strategize" on the threat posed by Iran, a duty that would normally be expected to fall under Defense Ministry jurisdiction.
But Peretz and other politicians aren't the only ones worried about Lieberman these days.
MA'ALEH REHAVAM General Secretary Moriya Halamish - who has just returned from Nokdim where her daughter attends kindergarten - is as forthcoming about Lieberman as K. was frugal.
Holding the hand of a younger son while maneuvering her five-month-old baby's stroller over extremely rocky, uneven terrain, Halamish escorts us into her caravan, one of the outpost's total of 15. Here she produces a map and a copy of the eviction notice. She also provides a detailed account of the outpost itself; of the legal battles she and her co-residents have caused and been the brunt of since its establishment five years ago; and of her thus far unsuccessful attempts to enlist Lieberman's active support.
"We feel terrible," she says, multi-tasking maternally while being interviewed and answering cell-phone calls relating to community affairs. "We live a kilometer and a half from a Knesset member who announced that he would only join the government if a freeze were put on outpost dismantling, but in the meantime, we get an eviction notice. He lives here. He could at least come over and find out what's going on."
According to Halamish, the first and last time Lieberman set foot in Ma'aleh Rehavam - named after tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who was assassinated on October 25, 2001 - was three or four years ago, "and then, only by invitation, and only for an extremely brief visit."
This, she says, is in spite of the fact that Ma'aleh Rehavam is considered a neighborhood of Nokdim. Pointing to the map, she expounds: "Before we were on this site, Nokdim wanted the area to be recognized as part of its boundary. Ma'aleh Rehavam is not sitting on Arab land, but lies within a boundary that was never approved by the government - unlike Nokdim, which has a recognized boundary."
When the current eviction notice arrived, Halamish says, she immediately phoned Lieberman's parliamentary assistant to explain the outpost's predicament and ask for help.
"She said she'd check with [Lieberman] and get back to me," continued Halamish. "The next day, a reporter from [the free Hebrew daily] Haisraeli asked me whether we'd received any assistance from Lieberman, and I answered that his office hadn't gotten back to me. This reporter must have phoned Lieberman's office for a response, because his parliamentary assistant got upset with me for having said that. She said, 'It's only been 24 hours since you called.' So, I said, 'I think that in 24 hours you could have done something.' But never mind. In any case, since then, I still haven't heard anything." [The Jerusalem Post tried to get a response from Lieberman's parliamentary assistant. As of the writing of this article, a message left on her phone has not been answered.]
Halamish says she considers every 24 hours crucial. From the time the eviction notice is received, recipients have eight days in which to evacuate or appeal. Time is rapidly running out.
This is not the first time, Halamish recounts, that Ma'aleh Rehavam has been slated for dismantling.
"In August 2004, we received such a notice. Our lawyer, [Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria attorney] Dudu Rotem, petitioned the High Court of Justice. For two years, nothing moved. Then, two months ago, at the height of the war in Lebanon, we received a second notice to evacuate. Four men and one woman from our outpost were serving in the army, two of them actually in Lebanon.
"We couldn't believe our eyes," she continues. "We said, 'What are they, crazy? After receiving draft notices, we get expulsion orders?' So we phoned the officer signed on the notice and explained it to him. He was slightly embarrassed and apologetic that the army hadn't thought of that. I don't know how the army could have forgotten that there was a war going on. But anyway, he told us to ignore the notice in the meantime, until things got settled down. Apparently now they have, which is why we got this new notice."
THE RAIN that poured throughout the early morning has completely stopped. Before setting, the sun dances with the clouds above Herodion, creating a majestic pattern of hues painting the sky and casting shadows over the caravans, one of which is occupied by soldiers, part of the IDF's security contingent for the outpost, some of whose uniforms are hanging on a laundry rack, flapping in the breeze.
Halamish goes outside to a swing erected between two posts, her children in tow. The garden she has planted along the side of her caravan is growing beyond her expectations. Pointing to the flourishing flower bed, she says matter-of-factly, "When you love the land, it loves you back."
Perhaps. But to the untrained eye, the entire area appears rather barren.
Not so, according to Halamish, who attributes what she claims is a rejuvenation of the soil surrounding the main encampment to one of three principles on which Ma'aleh Rehavam was founded: the absence of a fence.
"We've begun to notice a gradual increase in vegetation all over. Goats eat everything in sight, which they pull out at the roots," she says. "That's why it is said of Arabs that they don't live in the desert, they create it with their herds. If there were a fence around us, the goats would eat their way up to it."
Without a physical border, she believes, "the Arabs [and their goats] are pushed farther and farther back, and as a result, we see growth extending farther and farther beyond. This is allowing nature to recuperate."
Yet not erecting a fence was an ideological - not botanical - policy.
"It enables us not to limit our border in terms of expansion," she explains, "and even gives us a greater sense of security against Arab infiltration."
A greater sense of security?
"Yes." Halamish acknowledges that it sounds counterintuitive, "but when there's a fence, the Arabs know exactly where it is. When there isn't one, they become confused. It seems to cause them to understand that wherever we can see them beyond the hills, there they are not allowed to be."
Another founding principle of the outpost, Halamish continues, is not using foreign labor.
"Non-Jews are welcome here as friends and visitors. Just not as paid workers," she says. "This is not racist, but to provide employment to Jews."
The third principle Halamish lists is "that every Jew - whether religious, secular, married, unmarried - of any age, is welcome to come and live here. Most settlements have a selection committee and tend not to accept singles, for example, which means that singles who want to settle the land have no way of doing it. That's why we wanted to include them."
Indeed, she says, in spite of its small size, Ma'aleh Rehavam has what could be considered a wide cross-section of inhabitants, ranging in age (from 22-45) and of diverse religious practice and marital status.
WILL THEIR renewed petition to stay put buy them another chunk of time from the High Court of Justice?
"We hope so," sighs Halamish, her long, dangling earrings swaying as she rocks her baby in her arms.
Asked what she and her compatriots will do in the event that the legal system - or Lieberman - doesn't work in their favor, she ducks the specific question but is emphatic.
"One thing is certain," she states. "We made a collective decision that we would not be part of any outpost agreement. If we're told that we can remain on condition that another outpost is removed, we won't accept the deal. We're here to settle the Land of Israel, so it doesn't make sense to stay while others with the same goal have to pack up and leave."