Activists fight uphill battle for greater Efrat

Eighth hill of Efrat planned for preliminary settlement on July 25.

datya yitzhaki (photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
datya yitzhaki
(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
Michal Singerhut is pregnant and has an eight-month-old baby, but that doesn't stop her from planning to move onto an empty hilltop in Judea outside the security fence on July 25. The move is part of the latest initiative by right-wing activists to push for increased construction in the West Bank. Backed by the Action Committees of Efrat-Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba, Hebron and Har Hebron, Singerhut's family is one of five who plan to make a stand to save what she believes is an endangered section of Efrat called Givat Ha'eitam, which is located outside the security fence. "The government wants Efrat to get smaller, but we want it to grow bigger," said the young mother, 22, who has lived most of her life in the hilltop community located some 6.5 kilometers over the pre-1967 border. The activists who have planned the event, including Nadia Matar and Datya Yitzhaki of Women in Green, told The Jerusalem Post that they were not interested in creating any more unauthorized outposts with caravans dotting a hillside as had been done by activists in the early years of this decade. Instead they, along with the Land of Israel Faithful, have embarked on a new strategy to build new homes in areas in five authorized settlements in which the government has not yet approved construction. On July 25, the day after Tisha Be'av, which marks the destruction of the Temple, they have called on their supporters to join them as they as they place homes in their first target area for construction - Givat Ha'eitam. The move to populate the last large swath of undeveloped land in Efrat had an additional aim of pressing the government to move the line of the planned security fence to include Givat Ha'eitam, said Yitzhaki. Although the fence has not yet been built, the road to support the fence has already been constructed in such a way that it cuts the area off from the rest of the settlement. "If Israel doesn't build here, the Palestinians will," said Matar, who pointed to what she claimed was a Palestinian-owned yellow tractor moving dirt a slight way down the hillside. Along the way to the hilltop, she and Yitzhaki pointed out other places where Palestinians had moved the earth in preparation for construction. Standing on the hilltop, she and Yitzhaki said that it would be problematic from a security perspective to relinquish the hilltop because it had such a commanding view of the area and overlooked two access roads to Jerusalem. Looking at the buildings of Jerusalem in the distance, Matar said: "Just imagine what would happen if rockets were launched from here." Efrat's local council head and mayor, Eliyahu Mizrahi, said he didn't plan to join the activists on July 25 but that he agreed with them when it came to the construction of Givat Ha'eitam. The Efrat council also wants to develop that area, but it is waiting for the court to rule on a number of claims by Palestinians that the land belongs to them and not to the state. It's a hurdle that doesn't worry Mizrahi, who said that such claims had been made against most neighborhoods in Efrat, but that in each case the court had rejected them. Once the court rules, the council plans to seek permission from all governmental bodies to develop more then 2,000 apartments in Givat Ha'eitam, said Mizrahi. Efrat has some 9,000 residents, or about 1,500 families, Mizrahi said. His numbers are higher than those released by the Interior Ministry in 2006, which placed the Efrat population at 7,918. Even at that lower number, Efrat is the seventh largest settlement in the West Bank. If Mizrahi's plans were to be approved, the construction of Givat Ha'eitam would more than double the community's size and likely make it the fourth largest settlement in the West Bank. As he waits to move on Givat Ha'eitam, Mizrahi said, he has focused on the close to 1,000 units which legally could be developed in other Efrat neighborhoods but for which he has yet to receive permission to build. To date, he has the authority to build only 40 apartments and has recently constructed 110 units. He has actively sought authorization to build an additional 100 units. If he could build to capacity, "I could fill the apartments with no problem," said Mizrahi. "People come to our council offices every week looking, particularly Anglo immigrants," he said. "I've cried about this. I have fought about this," said Mizrahi, who blames international pressure from the Americans on the government's reluctance to authorize construction in his settlement. Still, he believes that the clampdown on building is temporary. Like many people in Gush Etzion, he understands that at the end of the day, the area will remain in Israeli hands as part of a final status agreement with the Palestinians. "In the history of the settlement, there were always ups and downs," said Mizrahi. Soon, he added, there will be a period when one can build again. According to a government official, there was no plan at this time to construct apartments in Efrat. Yitzhaki and Matar said they didn't want to wait for the force of the law to be on their side. As a Gaza evacuee who was forced by the government to leave her legally constructed home in Kfar Yam, Yitzhaki said she has learned not to depend on the law or housing permits when it comes to setting up a house. "I already lost one home," said Yitzhaki, who has relocated with her family to Efrat. Since the government evacuated 21 settlements in Gaza and another four in northern Samaria in 2005, it has been in retreat mode, Yitzhaki said. "We want to show that Zionism is not dead."