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The Wild, Wild West Bank

Illustration by Brooks Salzwedel

For a supposed outlaw, squatting in one of the illegal settlement outposts in the West Bank, Aaron Rehberg leads a surprisingly conventional life. He pays rent every month on the three-room trailer he shares with his wife, Shayna, and their beautiful, moon-faced, 8-month-old daughter. He’s up to date on his bills for water and septic services. His DSL line is paid for and legal, just like any other citizen’s (“You can’t be an Israeli without an Internet connection,” he says). He has a contract from a government body — the Land Management Bureau of Israel — leasing him half an acre of nearby land for a year, to grow vegetables; the document even has a helpful map showing him exactly where his plot is located.


Rehberg — 24, formerly of Albuquerque — is part of the myth about outposts. The myth, for years, has been that Rehberg and hundreds like him are the real problem in the West Bank, because they’re out of control: They’re taking over land willy-nilly, setting up illegal settlement outposts in defiance of the government; they’re wild-eyed and fierce; and the government is helpless to stop them.


Rehberg sits at his kitchen table, in front of a plate of oatmeal cookies Shayna just made, and smiles tolerantly at this fiction.



“It’s what Israelis call a kastach, a kisui takhat, a ‘cover your butt,’ right?” says Rehberg. He’s a big, bearded man who still sometimes talks like the hippie teenager he used to be, before converting to Judaism and moving to Israel. “Basically the whole name ‘illegal settlement [outpost]’ means a squatters’ village that the government allowed to be set up. There’s no such thing as a squatters’ village that the government hasn’t allowed, because people aren’t allowed to move caravans [trailer homes] on the roads without the government’s permission, you know what I mean? Cause you’ve seen a bunch of the checkpoints that the army has [in the West Bank], and so if a caravan comes to one of these checkpoints, right, and the government doesn’t like it, then the government says ‘Don’t allow it to pass.’ So, everything that’s happened, the government has allowed and even in a sense wanted and helped with, you know what I mean?”


Rehberg is right, and now there’s a 300-page government report to prove it. The unraveling of the myth started last summer, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ran out of excuses. He’d been promising the United States for months to dismantle outposts, but the dismantling kept not happening. Sharon said the delays occurred because outpost residents would launch a flurry of legal paperwork against their own removal any time the government got close. So, under pressure from the U.S., Sharon commissioned a report to get to the bottom of the outpost issue: who is funding and protecting them, and how do we get rid of them. This was pure chutzpah on Sharon’s part: As Israel’s foreign minister in 1998, he fanned the fire of the outpost movement by urging Israelis to “run and grab as many hilltops as [you] can, to enlarge the settlements, because everything we take now will stay ours.” Now, as prime minister, he’s playing innocent: How did all those crazy lawbreakers get there?


They got there, the government report says, because large swaths of the Israeli government have been talking out of both sides of their mouths, for years: publicly declaring that they were shocked, shocked that settlement outposts continued being established, and at the same time secretly supporting those outposts, and funding them to the tune of around $17 million, at the very least. “Massive funding” is the report’s exact wording. This outpost report is an entertaining read; it’s always pleasant when a tone of amazement creeps into a dry legal document, and this one is full of it. “We face not a felon, or a group of felons, violating the law,” wrote Talia Sasson, the former state prosecutor who compiled the report. “The big picture is a bold violation of laws done by certain State authorities, public authorities . . . and settlers, while falsely presenting an organized legal system.”


In other words, if this scam had been an Oscar-winning movie, the thank-yous would have gone on for a very long time. The Housing Ministry created a special, blandly labeled budget line — “general development misc.” — for outposts, and also used its own in-house architects to plan illegal outposts. In the Defense Ministry, the minister’s special aide on settlement issues wildly overstepped his authority and went around writing letters, against his ministry’s policy, saying various illegal outposts were in fact legal, thus enabling them to get government money. The state-funded Settlement Division of the quasi-governmental World Zionist Organization steamed ahead setting up illegal outposts, “and this is not by accident, but rather as a system,” Sasson wrote (the emphasis is hers). The Israeli army’s Civil Administration, which governs in the West Bank, turned a blind eye to outposts when they were being built. Thousands of demolition orders for outposts were never carried out. More than half of the 105 outposts Sasson counted were built, in whole or in part, on privately owned Palestinian land.


These facts are the bare minimum. They represent the legal violations that Sasson was able to confirm, but some officials stonewalled her, and she’s convinced that a lot more government money was diverted to outposts than she could document. “No one seriously intended to enforce the law,” concluded Sasson in the report. Instead, there was “continual, blunt and institutional breach of law, executed by the institutions of the state themselves.” At a press conference announcing the release of the report, Sasson seemed as disturbed as you’d expect a lawyer to be who’d spent the last seven months documenting rampant lawlessness in her own government. “Such a blatant violation of the law, in so many directions at once, threatens the democratic nature of our country,” she said.


Sharon is not mentioned in the report at all, which has outraged settlers, who’ve grown accustomed over the last 30 years to having Sharon firmly on their side. Adi Mintz, former director general of the Settlers’ Council, told the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv: “I am prepared to provide sworn testimony that Sharon told us that these outposts should be divided up into three groups: those that are in dispute that will have to be given up, those that can still be discussed, and the third group were strategic outposts such as Migron and Nofei Nehemya, which Sharon named explicitly, which we would never remove.”


Sasson, for her part, says she “didn’t have a single shred of evidence to show personal involvement by the prime minister in the establishment of illegal outposts in the territories.”


So, in the mythical version of the outposts’ creation, Rehberg, by himself, hauled a trailer home through all the military checkpoints of the West Bank and up onto a hill. He somehow scammed a steady supply of electricity and water. In actuality, Rehberg says, the trailer was already at the outpost, called Tekoa D, when he got there. All he needed to do was start paying rent and bills, just like at any other apartment or house, so he could have light, heat and water, courtesy of the Israeli government. But Tekoa D is small potatoes in the outpost world.




To get a real sense of all the government money and complicity that went into building these outposts, you have to check out some of the bigger ones. I drove into the West Bank with Dror Etkes, who monitors the growth of settlements and outposts for the Israeli group Peace Now. Etkes, who is built like a rugby player and shaves his head, resembles an avid naturalist who studies the habitat and characteristics of settlers. He keeps track of every new house, trailer home, road, fence, water tower and cell-phone antenna in the West Bank. He reads settler newsletters and Web sites. U.S. officials often consult Etkes about settlement issues, and he testified before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year.


“We’re going to Migron,” he said as we drove out of Jerusalem. “It’s one of the biggest outposts, and it’s not too far away from Jerusalem actually, about a 15-minute drive.”


The word “outpost” conjures an image of a lonely, hand-hewn cabin far from civilization. Welcome to Migron: about 40 neatly lined-up trailers on top of a hill, with streetlights, sidewalks, a playground, a brand-new sewage system, a water tower and a cell-phone tower. It looked as though a tornado had dropped a suburban community on top of a hill in the West Bank. Etkes pointed to the road we had driven up the hill to Migron. It’s long, winding and well-paved.


“That cost millions of shekels — to carve it and then to pave it,” he said. “Somebody paid for it. I saw the construction of this outpost from the very early stages. There are tens of millions of shekels invested here. Tens of millions. No doubt. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand this is governmental money.”


We drove north to a hill from which we could see the whole layout of another outpost, called Amona, where the suburban-ness was even further developed. Along a stretch of road in Amona we saw several brand-new houses — not trailers, but permanent homes. At a third outpost, called Haresha, we saw ground that had been cleared for construction, so the outpost could expand and add more illegal buildings.


The exact method by which an outpost manages to skirt its own illegality, and grow from an empty hill, to one trailer, to several trailers, to real houses with concrete foundations, is outlined is the Sasson report. “One way is . . . by asking to build an antenna at the top of a hill,” said the report. “Then comes a request to supply electricity, only for the antenna. Then a cabin is built for the guard and it, too, is linked to the power grid. Then a road is paved . . . and infrastructure is prepared to hook up trailers. Then one day a few trailers arrive and an outpost is established.”


Another method, according to the report, is by calling an outpost, on paper, a “neighborhood” of an existing settlement, even though the two are several kilometers apart. As a fake neighborhood, the fledgling outpost could get funding earmarked for the settlement. This method raises a question: What is the difference between an outpost and a settlement? The answer depends on whom you ask. The leaders of the settlement movement, who talk openly about funding and helping outposts, see no meaningful difference; an outpost is just a settlement-in-waiting. The Israeli government considers a settlement to be an authorized community of Israelis in the West Bank or Gaza, whereas an outpost is unauthorized. But the whole “authorization” distinction is a bit tricky, since government ministries have been giving outposts de facto authorization by funding them. Also, both settlements and outposts are, in the end, groups of Israelis living in the West Bank or Gaza, and under international law, all such communities are illegal, whether they’re called settlements or outposts.


The bottom line is that outposts are settlement shock troops. They increase Israel’s presence in the West Bank, and at the same time form a protective layer, a sort of buffer problem that postpones any action against settlements, which are the much bigger problem. For almost two years, the U.S. has been badgering Israel about outposts: Two dozen of them are supposed to have been dismantled already, under the terms of the “Road Map” peace plan. But while Israel has dragged its feet and debated with Washington about the outposts, settlements have continued to expand. Just this month, another 3,500 housing units were approved for Ma’ale Adumim, the biggest settlement in the West Bank. According to Etkes, Peace Now’s settlement monitor, only around 2,000 people live in outposts, compared to 220,000 in the West Bank and at least another 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Clearly, settlements, not outposts, are the big threat to President Bush’s vision of a “viable” and “contiguous” Palestinian state.


“Contiguity does not depend on dismantling outposts, it depends on the willingness to deal with settlements,” Etkes said. “What’s the point of dismantling Migron, with its 130 people, if you’re not going to dismantle [the settlements of] Kokhav Yaakov or Psagot next to it, where thousands of people live?”


But that question is not on the table. Outposts, once again, are coming to the settlements’ rescue by holding up the whole train, in the West Bank. The dismantling of any outposts, even with the evidence in Sasson’s report, is a long way off. The reaction of Sharon’s cabinet to the report was to set up a committee to study it and bring back decisions within 90 days. Three months is a long time for outposts to continue being able to grow. In the unlikely event that the U.S. insists that some outposts are taken down within those three months, they’ll focus on the two dozen that the “Road Map” mentions, leaving another 81 to be dealt with later, if at all. And the settlements will keep their shock troops.


Sasson wrote in the report that the government’s “wink” — its mixed message — has been the main obstacle to enforcing the law against outposts. Everyone can tell when a law is serious and when it’s just for show, and people are not going to stick their necks out trying to get someone to comply with a law that has no juice. The reality is that many Israelis, including some in government, are sympathetic to outposts and to their mission of settling the West Bank. As Sasson wrote, an unspoken idea prevailed in many parts of the government “that settling in unauthorized outposts, although illegal, is a Zionist deed.”


So what about Rehberg, at Tekoa D? He’s not worried. His attitude is: Reports come and go, governments say whatever doublespeak suits their needs. He and Shayna intend to stay. They want to build a house, keep growing vegetables, have more kids. Their parents are talking about coming to visit from America.


“When you find your place, you know it: You’re at peace, you know?” says Rehberg, with Shayna next to him and the baby cooing in her lap. “There’s peace and love. Not hippie love, like ‘Peace and love and gimme some pot and I’ll take your shirt and you can bury my poo for me.’ Not like that. I’m talking honestly. Anywhere else I’d be, I’d die.”



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