Behind the Lines: Caught between a farm and a bulldozer

The outpost issue is not only creating a schism between different camps of settlers.

IDF bulldozer, road 298 (photo credit: AP)
IDF bulldozer, road 298
(photo credit: AP)
'The truth is they've had it coming for a long time." said a veteran resident of one of the settlements in the southern Mount Hebron region of the inhabitants of the nearby Maon Farm slated for evacuation. Though quick to add that he was against any Jew being evicted from the land, he said these particular people had made "every possible mistake" over the last few months. Similar guarded comments could be heard this week from other settlers in the area whenever the outpost, reportedly on the top of Defense Minister Amir Peretz's blacklist, was mentioned. Indeed, there is an undercurrent of tension between the established communities and the 11 families living on the "farm." Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip leaders - who met on Sunday with the minister's committee on outposts, headed by Justice Minister Haim Ramon, and later that day with Peretz - routinely claim that most of the outposts are actually outlying neighborhoods of larger settlements. They know, of course, that in fact, many of the outposts were built by small groups of "pioneers" - guarding the frontier of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, while practicing organic farming, home schooling and vigilance at keeping Palestinians (and often policemen and journalists, as well) away from what they see as their exclusive domain. In some areas, the outposts are indeed satellites of the larger, more organized settlements. But in others, they are totally separate from - and often have an uneasy relationship with - the adjacent settlements. As one of the leaders of Maon, a small agricultural community of 58 families, said this week of the 11 families on the "farm" of the same name, "We're neighbors, but we don't cooperate with each other." Maon's elders are anxious not to be confused with the people of the Maon Farm, routinely described by the media and politicians as violent outlaws. At the same time, however, they do not want to join in the chorus singing for their removal. IN A bid to prove the legality of the outposts at Sunday's meeting, Council leaders presented a dossier containing detailed evidence of semi-official permission and cooperation with the authorities that had enabled most of them to be set up. But behind-the-scenes efforts have been underway for months to reach a compromise. Representatives of the settlers, the Defense Ministry and go-betweens, such as Kadima MK Otniel Schneller, a former secretary-general of the Council, have been working on an agreement that would allow the majority of the 105 outposts mentioned in the Sasson Report to remain for the time being, in exchange for the quiet dismantlement of a number of more prominent ones. The problem is that, despite acting as the sole representatives of the entire settler community, the Council leadership, whose members all live in the communities established by Gush Emunim almost 30 years ago, has no proxy to act on behalf of the outposts, many of whose residents view them as turncoats and collaborators with the government. These outpost settlers have made it clear that they will not be bound by any agreement reached between the Council and the government. They blame the Council leadership for not allowing a more forceful opposition to the evacuation of the Gush Katif and Northern Samaria settlements last summer. Now they are determined to prove that violence and a total break with the government is the only remaining recourse. FOR HIS part, Peretz is interested in driving a further wedge between the two camps. This he is doing by singling out for immediate evacuation those outposts whose residents have been repeatedly involved in violence over the past few years. Under siege by rebels in his party, forced to explain to his neighbors in Sderot why the IDF has been unable to stop the barrage of Kassams - and to the international community why Palestinian civilians keep getting killed in airstrikes on Gaza - Peretz hopes that acting against the outposts will prove he is in control, and reestablish his left-wing credentials. His declarations this week that he would not negotiate with these "outlaws" were disingenuous. The "outlaws" wouldn't have agreed to talk to him anyway. And he has caused even greater problems for the Council leadership - now fighting a losing battle to regain credibility among its more radical constituents, while not relinquishing its ability to deal with the government. The outpost issue is not only creating a schism between different camps of settlers, however. It also "runs in the family." In Maon this week, parents admitted to having no idea how their children will react when the police arrive with bulldozers to destroy the neighboring farm. "A lot of kids here were in Gush Katif," says Maon spokesman Dudu Eldar. "For many of them, that destruction is still traumatic." Maon residents see themselves as members of a peaceful, law-abiding community, busy tending their orchards, vineyards and livestock. The collective decision of the local council regarding their behavior during the imminent evacuation of the neighboring "farm," was to "open up a route through our agricultural area, so that [the bulldozers] won't come through our houses or through the [neighboring] Palestinian village, because that would be national humiliation." The plan is also to lock the gate separating Maon from the Maon Farm so that the expected violence at the outpost doesn't "spill into" the settlement. Nevertheless, many individual residents are planning to go to the farm and passively protest its demolition. These are not the only concerns of the Maon leadership, however. Though they harbor mixed-feelings toward the outpost, they believe that its evacuation could well be a preliminary stage of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's realignment plan. Most of the settlements in the area, including Maon, are outside the separation fence, and therefore slated for removal under the plan. Remaining within the Israeli consensus is a basic part of Maon's Zionism and religious ideals. At the same time, they fear that in the not-too-distant future these beliefs will be severely tested. Unlike in Hebron, where tensions constantly flare as Jews and Arabs live literally on top of each another, it's hard to understand why clashes occur in the wide, barren expanse to the south of the city. The settlers, who for a quarter of a century built idyllic agricultural communities in the wilderness, are quietly angry. They are angry with Israeli and international left-wing activists who, they claim, intentionally marched Palestinian schoolchildren through their orchards in order to stir up trouble. They are angry with their Maon Farm neighbors who allegedly attacked these children and other Palestinians on numerous occasions, creating tensions with the police and army and supplying an extra reason for their evacuation. And they are angry with Peretz for what they see as his opportunistic scapegoating of an entire community.