Child warriors in West Bank outposts

7 ulpana girls evacuated from Givat Ha'or outpost have become something of a cause celebre in Israel.

outpost, flag 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
outpost, flag 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Such fine girls. Giggling and lively, but also very respectful of their elders - and very serious, very committed to their political cause, which is Eretz Yisrael and which they advance by showing solidarity with the illegal West Bank settlement outposts. The two girls I interviewed at their ulpana (religious girls' school) in the Samarian hills, whose student body includes the daughters of some of the most bloody-minded Kachniks in the country, are 15 and 16 years old. In a dormitory room left in typical teenage disarray, the girls talk about their seven schoolmates sitting in police detention for refusing to leave an illegal outpost that had been declared a closed military zone, and how they travel to Jerusalem's Russian Compound to protest outside the girls' court hearings. "We yell out to them, 'We're with you,' 'They can't break you,' 'The Blessed Holy One is protecting you,'" says the 16-year-old, "Sara." She lives in Ir David, otherwise known as Silwan, an Arab neighborhood just outside the Old City where settlers have established a "Jewish presence" over the years. "We threw candies at them once, when it was the birthday of one of the girls in prison," adds the 15-year-old, "Michal." She lives in Yitzhar, possibly the single most violent, radical settlement in the West Bank. Toward the end of the interview, I ask them whom they see as their leaders, and they name a few rabbis including Yitzhak Ginzburg, publisher of a book of tribute to Baruch Goldstein. What about Meir Kahane? I ask. "Oh, Rabbi Kahane, of course, we forgot," says Sara, and the two smile in embarrassment at the oversight. And what do the girls at the ulpana, which has some 200 pupils, mainly from the settlements, say about Baruch Goldstein? "He was my family doctor," replies Sara. A pretty girl with long curly hair and an innocent smile, Sara's eyes get soft and shiny as she talks about Goldstein, repeating what she's heard about this man who died when she was two. "People don't know what a great man he was - so gentle and wise." Alluding to the legend, popular among Jewish extremists, that Goldstein learned of an impending Palestinian slaughter of Hebron Jews and that he killed all those Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs to prevent it, she says, "He couldn't live with what was about to happen, so he acted out of madness. Nobody here is saying it should be done again, but they think he did the right thing. He prevented so many deaths." "It was a good deed," says Michal flatly. Asked to describe the political views of the ulpana's student body, Sara says they run from the National Religious Party to the Kahanist movements. "People here are very open," she says. "Like with me - I'm not as extreme as some of the others, and it's no problem." The "hilltop youth" and their supporters - these many thousands of fanatics who spearhead the religious settler movement - are in high gear to establish new outposts and build onto existing ones. Meanwhile, the Olmert government, under pressure from US President George W. Bush, has reluctantly signaled that it will try again to clear out at least some of them. There are more than 100 small, makeshift outposts built near established settlements in the West Bank. Their total population is estimated at 3,000, with few residents older than their 20s. Former premier Ariel Sharon promised Bush to tear down the 25 or so built since March 2001, when Sharon took office, but the government's repeated attempts have failed, as a rule, in the face of the squatters' brazenness, tenacity and political backing. LAST TUESDAY, to mark Bush's visit, a coalition of radical settler organizations planned to fan out across the West Bank with construction equipment to assemble crude houses and synagogues for outposts old and new. "With God's help, we're going to add on a second floor," says "Ilan," 16, pointing to the pink-painted, concrete-block house at Shvut Ami, an outpost where a handful of teenagers sleep on mattresses spread over the house's dried mud floor. Located a few hundred meters off the highway from Kedumim, the pioneering Samarian settlement run by Daniella Weiss, the godmother of the outpost movement, Shvut Ami has been evacuated by police maybe a dozen times since it went up last Succot, only to be immediately reoccupied every time. The only signs of life on the bare stretch of land are the pink concrete house, a synagogue built of stones and a tiny, transient population of young settlers. With his long, scraggly hair and beard, oversized kippa and wanderer's scarf blowing in the cold wind, Ilan is the picture of a hilltop youth. He left his parents' nearby settlement nearly two months ago to come live here. "They've visited a couple of times," he says in his mumbling voice. "They support me completely; they give me food, money, whatever I need." The new stars of the outpost movement, however, are the seven girls who've been in police detention since getting arrested on December 25 at the Givat Ha'or outpost - one of several built over Hanukka - near the settlement of Beit El. The girls are 14 and 15, says the director of their ulpana; she insists that all names, including that of the ulpana, go unpublished. "They're good girls, quiet. They love Eretz Yisrael very much. They know we're in a war now with those who always want to throw Jews out of Eretz Yisrael. They're true idealists. It's impressive to see young girls who have the fire of Eretz Yisrael burning inside them," says the director, a friendly, energetic woman in her 40s, sitting in her office. The seven girls could have been released from prison anytime, she notes, but they refused to give their names or cooperate in any way with the court. "They don't recognize the court's jurisdiction because it doesn't pass judgment according to the laws of the Torah," the director explains. Another reason they've chosen to remain in detention is because they won't agree to stay away from Givat Ha'or, a likely stipulation in their release. Asked how their parents feel about their 14- or 15-year-old daughters choosing to stay in police detention for two weeks and counting, the director replies, "Emotionally it's hard for them. Some of the parents agree very much with what the girls are doing, some of them not so much, but they all understand and respect them for it, and they're allowing them to go on with their decision." A contingent from the ulpana, along with other sympathizers, shows up at every court hearing. "Our girls [at the demonstrations] yell and go a little wild, and it has an effect," says the director. "I heard one policeman tell another one, 'Don't arrest them.' They don't want this to flare up anymore than it already has. It's a big headache for them." AT THE Shvut Ami outpost last Friday morning, there is evidence of a past evacuation attempt in the high mounds of dirt that a police bulldozer pushed up against the pink house, ostensibly to block entry. But around the corner is another entrance, and the squatters have thrown a sheet across it to pass for a door. Inside are five mattresses; a teenage boy is sleeping on one of them. There's a water heater for coffee and a few cooking utensils. Except for the two wall hangings - a poster reading "A Jew doesn't expel a Jew" and a colored-paper decoration left over from Hanukka or Succot - the room looks like a squat in an abandoned construction site. The room on the other side of the wall is the girls' wing. By now, resisting evacuation at Shvut Ami has become a regular drill. "When we hear rumors that the police are coming, we start calling in people from the outposts, from Kedumim, Karnei Shomron, from all around," says Ilan. Typically, 50 to 100 protesters show up. "We sit down and link arms," he continues, "and if the border policemen or the Yasamim [Special Patrol Unit policemen, who tend to be big guys] hit us, we hit them back with whatever we've got. We're not going to be their whipping boys." He says one girl got her hand broken when police forced her down from the roof of the pink house. "Once the border police threw eggs against the wall," he adds, showing the egg stains that the kids have left as a testament of sorts to their struggle. Missing two months of school doesn't bother Ilan. Before moving to Shvut Ami, he studied at a yeshiva near Hebron. "Now I study Torah here," he says. "Tomer," at 30 an elder in the outpost community, came here a little before Ilan from a religious settlement on the Golan Heights, where he lived on his own. He has a somewhat distant aspect about him, but what he says is very practical and realistic. "No matter what [the authorities] do, we're still going to be here. If they throw us out, we'll set up tents on the other side of the road and live there. We'll do whatever has to be done, without violence, to block evacuation," he says, noting that the last evacuation, which turned out to be as fleeting as every previous one, took place about three weeks ago. IN RECENT months, dozens of young settlers have been arrested for refusing to leave the illegal outposts when police came to clear them out. Typically, says the ulpana director, the settlers cooperate and are released right away. By contrast, the seven ulpana girls, by refusing to identify themselves or recognize the court's authority, have become something of a cause celebre in the movement. To the hard-liners in the religious settler community, they're teenage heroines, political prisoners, freedom fighters. This is a subculture of warm, generous, educated, dedicated people who, in their insularity, commonly believe that the Hebron massacre was an act of Jewish self-defense and that Shimon Peres and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) were behind the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It is a community that considers any government inclined to dismantle settlements, or even just unauthorized outposts, to be a mortal enemy of the Jewish people. "We feel another war over Eretz Yisrael is coming, a much worse war [than the evacuation of Gush Katif]," says the ulpana director. "Like Elyakim Ha'etzni [an elder statesman of the settler movement] said, 'Israel is led by people who want to wipe out this country.' If we let them evacuate outposts, they'll evacuate settlements, too. And if Israel gives up land, the Jews, at best, will have to take out passports to visit this country. Either that or we'll be sent [by the Palestinians] to the gas chambers." The memory of Gush Katif is cited by outpost supporters as a humiliation that they must not let happen again. The Gush Katif settlers "made a joke of themselves," maintains Ilan, who was in Kfar Darom for its final weeks, when he was 13. "They were kicked out of their homes and they didn't do anything." Many of the 9,000 settlers in Gush Katif did leave peaceably. But a few threw paint and even caustic liquid on soldiers, and many others barricaded their gates, their homes and their synagogues and did everything short of committing serious violence to resist disengagement. "A disgrace, a desecration of the holy name," was Tomer's description of that last stand. One of the seven ulpana girls in police detention was evacuated with her family from Gush Katif. "She was expelled once, then she got expelled a second time from Givat Ha'or - all for the 'crime' of being in Eretz Yisrael," says the ulpana director. In the dormitory room, Sara says she can't even describe the full effect that the destruction of Gush Katif had on her. "Since the expulsion, sometimes I can't even function. I can't stand up for myself, for my beliefs, like I should. I never believed the government would do such a thing, and when it did, it shook me. It shook my self-confidence, my security." Now, during their after-school hikes around the West Bank every Tuesday, the girls at the ulpana often head for one outpost or another to help out or just show moral support. Last summer, several of them went to Homesh, one of the four northern Samaria settlements torn down in the disengagement, to join the effort to rebuild it. Michal and Sara say they feel "alienated" from the state - from its government "that helps Arabs," from its courts "that release Palestinians but not Jews," and from its laws "that violate the laws of the Torah." At 15 and 16, they are genuinely, personally hurt by events in this country. They seem to have good hearts. They seem to have a lot to offer. I ask them what the students at the ulpana think of Yigal Amir. "A lot of them are mad that he wasn't allowed to be with his son after the birth," says Michal, a bit cautiously. Treading carefully myself, I ask what the students think of Amir's "act." "Some people say his act was justified," says Sara, her candor winning out over her wariness, "and some people say he shouldn't have done it, but that maybe he [Rabin] deserved it." What do they think about somebody doing that sort of thing to other leaders? "Look, nobody's going to do it," says Sara. Then, looking away, smiling slightly, she adds, "If only it would happen." Realizing she's on dangerous ground now, she aborts that train of thought, laughs nervously and trails off, "Anyway, it's all in God's hands." The interview is over; there isn't much more to say.