ASIRA AL-QIBLIYA, West Bank (IPS) - Ibrahim Makhlouf reached for two wooden planks lying in the hallway and placed them expertly in an L-shape along the seams of his front door.
“Open [the door],” he beckoned, knowing that doing so was nearly impossible. “Every night, we put this here,” he said. “For the settlers.”
Makhlouf’s home sits on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Asira al-Qibliya, only 500 meters from the illegal Israeli settlement outpost of Shalhevet Farm, an offshoot of the equally illegal settlement of Yitzhar.
Makhlouf said that his house was attacked by Israeli settlers at least two times per week and has been vandalized more than 100 times. The windows on Makhlouf’s two-story home all have bars on the outside to prevent them from shattering when settlers throw stones.
“When we see the settlers, we send the children to another house. What can we do?” Makhlouf, who lives with his wife and six children, said. “We’re afraid. There is no safety.”
Since the Shalhevet Farm outpost was established in 1999, Makhlouf said he has been barred from accessing some 16 dunums of his family’s land (a dunum is 1,000 square meters) which was traditionally used to plant figs, grapes, olives and other trees, and from using a freshwater spring.
“It is my father and grandfather’s land, but now settlers are planting, and I can’t even enter it. They want to confiscate the land and houses and control the whole area to extend their settlements,” Makhlouf said.
“The [Israeli] government encourages them, with money and protection from the soldiers,” he added. “The government and the settlers are one.”
In recent weeks, the United States has asked Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank in order to restart long-stalled talks with the Palestinian Authority. On 30 April, the Arab League said it would support potential land swaps along the 1967 Green Line — the internationally-recognized armistice line between present-day Israel and the occupied West Bank — in negotiations of final borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state.
But the growth of Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, like Shalhevet Farm, has been almost entirely omitted from the conversation. Such outposts are often precursors to full-fledged settlements.
Both the outposts and the settlements themselves are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention also forbids an occupying power from transferring its civilian population to the territory it occupies.
For Palestinians, settlements and outposts have the same negative impact on their lives. But the Israeli government views only outposts, not the entire settlements, as illegal, sometimes dismantling them for being built without the required permits and then relocating residents to nearby settlements.
Settlements are generally much larger than outposts and receive full services and infrastructure, although the Israeli government does also provide outposts, which generally begin as a few caravans on a hilltop, with basic services such as water and electricity. The Israeli army also protects outpost residents, as it does all other Israeli settlers.
Israeli settlement outposts were first built in the mid-1990s, during a freeze on settlement construction imposed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. A few years later, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon famously urged Israeli settlers to seize every hilltop. “Whatever you grab will be ours. What you don’t grab will not be ours,” he said.
In 2005, at the behest of the Israeli government, lawyer Talia Sasson reported that the outposts were illegal under Israeli law. To be considered legal, a settlement must be established by a government decision, be built on “state land,” possess a building plan and have clear, territorial boundaries.
Outposts fail to meet these criteria, although earlier this week, the Israeli government announced plans to examine whether it could retroactively “legalize” four outposts.
Today approximately 100 Israeli settlement outposts dot the West Bank. While most begin small, they develop quickly, and many have cement houses, paved roads, playgrounds and day-care centers.
In the case of Shalhevet Farm, Peace Now, an Israeli organization that works against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, found that the Israeli ministry of housing spent 1.1 million shekels (more than $300,000) to connect the outpost to basic infrastructure. The Israeli water company Mekorot provides it with water.
Controlling the land
Many outposts also serve an important geopolitical aim.
According to a report by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, some outposts aim “to create Jewish continuity and connect isolated settlements with settlement blocs, in order to prevent future evacuation. Even though each of these outposts is home to only a few dozens of families, the outposts can completely control the land or the road around it” (“The road to dispossession,” February 2013 [PDF]).
Violence against Palestinians and their property emanating from settlement outposts has also been well documented. After a Palestinian man killed an Israeli settler earlier this month near Nablus, the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq documented 13 settler attacks against Palestinians in one week in the area (“In one week: 13 attacks by settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank,” 9 May 2013).
Munir Jibreel Qaddous, a 38-year-old farmer from the West Bank village of Burin, was viciously attacked by Israeli settlers in 2011, while the Israeli army and police looked on and did nothing.
White caravans of the settlement outpost of Bracha B, an extension of the Bracha settlement, overlook much of Burin’s farmland, and settlers regularly vandalize Palestinian property and attack their homes in the village, Qaddous explained.
Data collected by Yesh Din shows that between 2005-2012, more than 91 percent of complaints filed by Palestinians against acts of Israeli settler violence were closed without an indictment. Of this, 84 percent were closed due to the Israeli police’s failure to properly investigate the crimes (“Law enforcement upon Israeli civilians in the West Bank,” March 2012 [PDF]).
“All of them are the same,” said Qaddous, referring to Israeli settlers living in settlements and unauthorized outposts. He witnessed the Bracha B outpost’s construction and gradual expansion.
“In 1999, a watch-tower was put up, then trailers were erected. Then, there were 15 cement houses. Before the settlers came, they put [in] a road, electricity and water,” he said.
“This area is a very strategic area of the West Bank. After five or ten years, maybe you will see settlers on every hill.”
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