Residents defy 'road map' at illegal West Bank outpost

Sde Boaz is one of 100 illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank that is supposed to be dismantled as part of the Bush administration road map for peace.
Sde Boaz is one of 100 illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank that is supposed to be dismantled as part of the Bush administration road map for peace. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

SDE BOAZ, West Bank — There's not much to speak of on this rocky hillside with panoramic views of Jerusalem. A small team of bored Israeli soldiers mans a drab military guard tower that looms over a dozen mobile homes and battered shipping containers. Four squat, cement homes perch on the edge of terraced valleys filled with vineyards and olive groves.

The two dozen young parents, teachers, mechanics and therapists building this illegal Israeli outpost known as Sde Boaz say they just want to create a "spiritually diverse, eco-friendly" Jewish community.

Israel and the United States view them as one of the main obstacles to U.S. efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the next nine months.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called outposts like this a "disgrace."

President Bush says it is long past time that they were dismantled. Yet, despite years of Israeli pledges, negotiations and international pressure, little has been done to uproot these contentious communities.

"There is a gap between rhetoric and reality," said Dror Etkes, one of Israel's leading researchers on West Bank settlements.

Sde Boaz is one of more than 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank with a total of 7,000 residents, according to settlement leaders. Olmert has agreed in principle to take down some two dozen of them — including Sde Boaz — to comply with demands from the internationally agreed "road map" that Israel immediately remove all illegal outposts.

Since taking office two years ago, Olmert had homes razed in one illegal West Bank outpost — but only after Israel's Supreme Court ordered the action. In 2006, thousands of police descended on Amona, where they clashed with thousands of protesters in a heavy-handed crackdown later criticized by a special government committee as unnecessarily brutal.

To avoid a repeat, Olmert's coalition government has been trying — so far unsuccessfully — to negotiate a compromise with settlement leaders to dismantle two dozen West Bank outposts and move the residents to larger, established Jewish settlements that are likely to remain part of Israel in a future peace deal.

But settlement leaders don't want to do anything to help Olmert and Bush push their peace plans along.

"In my view the road map is an obscene document," said Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha Council, the largest West Bank settler group leading negotiations on dismantling outposts. "We don't see the road map as something we want to cooperate with."

Dayan opposes any plan that would establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Residents of Sde Boaz share that view and have no intention of abandoning their land.

"The two-state solution is completely absurd," said Ezra HaLevi, a 28-year-old New York transplant who moved with his wife to Sde Boaz three years ago.

Hananel Shear-Yashuv, an assertive activist, established Sde Boaz in 2002 by moving a shipping container to the hilltop and staking his claim.

Though Shear-Yashuv moved to the hilltop without official permission, the Israeli government spent at least $45,000 to help build the military watch tower and run electricity to the outpost, according to Peace Now, a leading Israeli group that monitors West Bank settlements.

While Palestinians own much of the surrounding land, it's not clear who owns the hilltop where Sde Boaz sits. Hagit Ofran, Peace Now's Settlement Watch director, said part of Sde Boaz is built on Palestinian property, but the Israeli government has yet to establish who has rights to the land.

Palestinians in the nearby town view Shear-Yashuv with fear. Farmers described him as a confrontational settler who would unleash his dogs to chase off Palestinians trying to tend their land. Shear-Yashuv refused to be interviewed.

Most of the Palestinian land here is owned by farmers living in El Khader, a small town at the bottom of the valley that's being cut off from the fields by Israel's expanding separation barrier.

One recent afternoon, the wife of a Palestinian farmer with land next to Sde Boaz agreed to join a reporter and visit land she hadn't seen in years.

As she passed through the gates of the nearby settlement of Neve Daniel, the 54-year-old woman quietly cursed the Israelis, who she said had taken part of their land to build the settlement.

"May a wind come and destroy this place," said the woman, who asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation. "Our land is here, but I don't recognize it."

On the short dirt road leading from Neve Daniel to Sde Boaz, the woman gazed out on her family's olive trees.

"We are afraid to come here," she said. "We are afraid to plant the land."

While the woman looked out on her olive trees, another farmer rode up on a donkey loaded with plastic jugs and fresh sage picked from his narrow fields along the road.

Ali Haman Saleh described years of clashes with Sde Boaz settlers and said he comes only once a month to check out his land.

"They destroy everything," Saleh said before riding off. "What can I do."

Such complaints came as a surprise to HaLevi, the Sde Boaz resident who described relations with the Palestinian farmers in recent years as peaceful.

During a tour with HaLevi of the adjacent valleys, a Palestinian shepherd quietly led his sheep along the ridge below Sde Boaz without any apparent fear of confrontation.

Palestinian complaints against Sde Boaz residents have fallen off, but HaLevi also described years of volatile relations. Olive trees planted by Sde Boaz have been uprooted and makeshift bombs planted at the spring used by the settlers and Palestinian farmers, said HaLevi, who works as a journalist for Arutz Sheva, a media outlet aligned with the settlement movement.

"It's a very complex existence here," HaLevi said. "You have to be on guard.

You almost want to be naive, but bombs go off and houses are attacked, and you are reminded that you are on the forefront of a global ideological battle."

Since Sde Boaz is on the western side of Israel's separation barrier, the residents are hopeful that any deal on outposts will allow them to stand firm and eventually transform their trailers into permanent homes.

"It's hard to believe that they are going to go after outposts inside the wall," HaLevi said.

Dayan said he's willing to work with Olmert on a deal to remove West Bank settlements built on Palestinian land, but wouldn't support anything seen as helping to lay the foundations for a Palestinian state.

"I think the international community has a fixation on the wrong solution, and it leads every time to a new wave of violence," said Dayan. "They keep pressing in the wrong path."

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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