The settlements’ fateful hour

With peace talks under way, settler leaders are worried that not only will the moratorium on building be extended, but that the very future of the settlement enterprise is gravely threatened.

Barkan settlement 311 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Barkan settlement 311
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Ortal Gavra prayed for an end to the settlement freeze. “I actually pray for this every day, but I did so especially now,” said the mother of two from Tekoa.
She is one of an estimated 2,066 home owners throughout Judea and Samaria who as of yet have no idea if they can begin building when the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction expires on September 26.
“We are waiting. We still do not know what will happen,” said Gavra, who like most settlers has paid little attention to the pledges by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and countless ministers that the government would keep to its word and allow building to resume on that day. Instead they fear that at the last second he will renege on his word.
“We still have time until the deadline and we are aware that the American administration is putting pressure on Netanyahu to extend the moratorium,” said Dani Dayan, who heads the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
For settlers and right-wing activists, this period in which the end of the most sweeping crackdown on Jewish West Bank construction in the history of the settlement movement approaches, has taken on an atmosphere which they said was akin to the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur, after which their fate is sealed.
“Like Ne’ila, these are crucial days for the future of Israel. It is not about Judea and Samaria, it is about the very existence of the state. We have a short period of time in which we have to do everything in our power to strengthen our prime minister against the unfair and unprecedented pressures coming from President [Barack] Obama,” said council director-general Naftali Bennett.
During the last 10 months, construction has continued on some 3,000 homes which were already being built when the moratorium was imposed. As a result the number of finished units in Judea and Samaria, on average 2,000 a year, has continued as normal.
But settlers and right-wing activists have kept their eye on the sudden drop in new housing starts to almost zero, based on numbers from the Central Bureau of Statistics, with an understanding that if the moratorium were to continue, eventually the Palestinians would have been given the one thing they most want – a complete halt to settlement construction.
THE FACT THAT the moratorium takes place against the backdrop of the renewal this month of the first direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, since negotiations for a two-state solution broke down in December 2008, has only further deepened the settlers’ sense that their very fate hangs in the balance.
At present, Dayan said, “100 percent of our time is dedicated to doing everything possible to prevent the extension of the moratorium.”
Most of that battle has focused on a stiff political campaign within the Likud, and has included ads, a website, phone calls and petitions, said Dayan. Eleven Likud ministers, the Knesset speaker and Likud MKs have all made public statements against extending the moratorium.
Dayan cautiously said he was hopeful that the atmosphere generated by the lobbying efforts has made it “unfeasible” to extend the moratorium. But he is aware that the end of the moratorium is only part of the problem and hardly solves the larger issues about the future of the settlement movement.
Should the moratorium end, the battle for Judea and Samaria is hardly over, said Dayan. For months settlers have feared that Netanyahu would institute a de facto moratorium, in which it would appear that construction would be renewed, but in reality construction would still be stymied.
Settlers believe that short of extending the moratorium, little can be done to stop new construction by settlers who have a permit in hand or who need only the signature of their municipalities or local and or regional council offices, all of which are run by settlers.
The exact amount of that potential construction is unknown. But last week Peace Now, which monitors settlement construction, published a report in which it estimated that 2,066 units in the settlements could be begun immediately because all their necessary permits had already been granted.
Separately, it estimated that 11,000 units, which already had the approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the cabinet, could be built once local permits were obtained.
But even Peace Now noted that this did not mean that settlers could race to get the permits and then begin an unprecedented wave of construction, partially because many of these projects exist in settlements which have grown only very slowly over the years, while other settlements close to the Green Line, such as Ma’aleh Adumim and Betar Illit, are almost out of permits.
These settlements have enough permitted units so that their growth will continue to be consistent for the coming year. After that, without the active approval of new projects by the cabinet and the Defense Ministry, settlement construction will have to slow down or shift away from the settlement blocs.
If the moratorium ends, said Dayan, then the next phase of the battle is to pressure the government and Barak to publish new construction tenders in communities that lack them.
“We expect that these tenders will be published in a reasonable time,” said Dayan. He added that failure to publish them means that there is a de facto freeze in place.
It is the lack of clarity from Netanyahu and his government which is most frustrating and harmful, said Alfei Menashe Local Council head Eliezer Hisdai, who also fears a de facto freeze.
No one knows if they can build on the 26th, said Hisdai, who added that he had just gotten off the phone with one resident of his community whose home had been frozen. “She was in tears and I did not know what to tell her except to wait for a few more days,” he said.
Netanyahu should either extend the moratorium or end it in a clear way by authorizing more construction, said Hisdai.
His settlement of 6,600 people, located 2.8 kilometers from the pre- 1967 line, is among those that need government approval before they can build. In 2008, the population of his settlement grew by 7.6 percent, more than five times as much as the 1.8% population growth countrywide that year.
The freeze put a halt to the construction of 20 homes, but after that, Hisdai said, there are no more approved.
INDECISION on the issue of settlement construction has not helped Netanyahu diplomatically or internally, said Hisdai. No one is happy, not the Americans, not the Palestinians, not the international community, not the settlers and not the members of his own party.
It would be worth it if he helped “save the Land of Israel,” but in fact, it seems the opposite has happened, he said.
The lack of construction has crated financial hardship for the owners of the lots, who are still liable for payments on loans, rental contracts and fees due to contractors.
It has also meant a financial loss for local governments, said Hisdai, who estimated that in the last 10 months his council lost NIS 5 million in fees.
For Gavra, 26, who received a permit to build in Tekoa on November 24, two days before the moratorium was imposed, it has meant that she still has to pay municipal and property taxes on the lot, extend her rental contract and even pay the contractor who at one point threatened to sue her and her husband.
In the interim, she has participated in a number of protests and has appealed the decision to freeze her lot. With only a few days left until the moratorium expires, she has yet to receive a final answer as to whether or not her home was exempt.
In Barkan, Kobi Kalabrino and his wife Mali said that ending the freeze is the only way they can move their family out of the 48-square-meter caravan which has become their home.
As the couple spoke, they sat at a table set up outside because they could not fit it into their narrow, three-room caravan. Other items set up outside for lack of space included a second refrigerator and a plastic closet.
The large metal bars of a Defense Ministry tower for cellular signals loomed above them. Teenagers shot hoops or rode skateboards in the basketball and tennis court located just a few meters outside their front door. Access to their temporary abode can only be gained by walking through the court.
The couple joked that they have come full circle, because they met as teenagers on a soccer field. Kobi was hanging out with friends; Mali was passing by.
They were married in 1988 and for years they lived with their three children in Mazkeret Batya near Rehovot. For ideological reasons, four years ago they built a 300-sq.m.
home in Barkan. “We do not see this as occupied territory,” said Kobi.
But they sold the home last year and bought a smaller plot so they could pay off a debt they owed the bank after a friend failed to repay a loan on which they had co-signed.
“No one spoke of a freeze. We had drawn up all our plans; we paid everything; we had all our authorizations,” Kobi said.
On November 16 they received their final permits, but the Defense Ministry said they had to wait until December to dig their foundation to give the IDF time to move the cell tower to its present location.
Ten days later, they heard about the freeze on the news. By then their personal die was already cast because they could not renege on the contract in which they agreed to leave their old home in June, by when they had expected their new one would be finished.
They could not find any place to rent in Barkan, nor did they want to leave temporarily. Desperate for a roof over their heads, they came to an agreement with the council by which they would pay to renovate a dilapidated caravan. “There was no choice. There was no place else to live,” Kobi said.
On their computer they have before and after photographs. They put most of their furniture in storage and crammed everyone into three rooms.
Mali showed how there is a double bed and a mattress behind the bed that is pulled out at night.
Their two girls are in the army and their son is in a pre-military academy.
“We have given to the state and we will continue to give,” said Kobi, who worked for 24 years in the Prisons Service. He now works for a security company, and his wife for a car rental company.
They estimate they have already sunk NIS 500,000 into their new home, a sum they now fear they will lose if they cannot build.
“What is hard,” said Kobi, “is the impact on the children. They are ashamed to bring friends home.”
Still, he said, “we were a strong family before and we remain a strong family.”
The moment the moratorium ends, Kobi said, he plans to build as quickly as possible. “We will even sleep at the site if we need to,” he said.