The Washington Post
A relentless expansion of settlements
For people being kicked out of their houses, the settlers are in a fine mood. Neighbors chat as they load hampers into hatchbacks. Children play. Men with knit yarmulkes and automatic rifles burst into song: “Am Yisrael chai — the people of Israel live!”
It’s eviction day in Evyatar, a hilltop outpost a few hundred yards off Route 60 in the arid countryside about an hour’s drive south of Jenin. But the dozens of settlers in Evyatar, religious Zionists who claim all they can see from these heights as part of the biblical Jewish homeland, know they will soon return.
“Politicians don’t control this world. God does,” says Eli Shapira as he pauses from loading his white Nissan.
“We will come back on a mission that this place will become a town,” promises Ayelet Schlissel, shading her eyes from the morning glare as men rush to mount a towering Israeli flagpole behind her. “And in 15 years, maybe we will move on to another mission to build another town.”
Almost overnight, the founders of Evyatar had extended Israel’s network of settlements even deeper into the West Bank, planting the outpost among a cluster of Palestinian villages. It is the newest of more than 100 settlements reaching ever farther into occupied territory, each adding another Palestinian no-go zone to the heart of a would-be Palestine.
Amid Palestinian olive groves south of the city of Nablus, settlers built this community — houses for about 50 families, paved streets, sewers and a synagogue — in a matter of days in May with help from hundreds of volunteers bused in by a right-wing group that aims to derail Palestinian statehood.
Because Evyatar was erected without formal Israeli government approval, the Israeli army said the settlers would have to leave. Previous attempts to evict unauthorized outposts have led to clashes between settlers and soldiers. But these settlers — younger and more politically plugged in than previous generations of religious Zionists — have instead brokered a deal with the government: They would vacate, but for only as long as it took to survey the land and gain official approval.
Israeli settlements have expanded relentlessly in recent decades, but these new outposts, like Evyatar, pose a particular challenge for the creation of a Palestinian state. Traditionally, most Jewish settlers have lived in communities close to the Green Line, and mapmakers drawing the boundaries of a future Palestine often envision these settlements ultimately being incorporated into Israel, perhaps as part of a land swap with Palestinians.
But settlements like Evyatar, deep inside the West Bank, strike at the very integrity and coherence of any independent state. Over the past 10 years, more than 53,000 settlers have moved to homes at least three miles inside the West Bank, a 47 percent increase in this population, according to Peace Now, an Israeli advocacy group. More than 31,000 of them have moved to settlements at least six miles from the Green Line.
Ali Akal, a 32-year-old Palestinian, can see Israel’s advancing edge from the surrounding cluster of villages where his family has lived for generations. “It is already cutting us off from the other villages,” he says, while working in his uncle’s butcher shop on Route 60.
As he slices meat from a lamb carcass hanging on a hook, Akal describes how the growing West Bank settler population — now exceeding a half-million — constricts his freedom. Each new settlement drags a contrail of roads and water lines and restrictions across routes that used to be open to Palestinians.
Pop-up army checkpoints can add an hour to a 10-minute drive. Just down the highway from where he threads cubes of lamb onto a skewer, Israeli road crews are building a Route 60 bypass to better accommodate settler traffic. The project, he says, conflicted with local plans to extend sewerage to 2,000 Arab homes, which then had to be abandoned.
“It’s not only hard to imagine making a continuous state here; it’s even hard to make a continuous city,” Akal says, wiping his hands. “They are taking our sovereignty bit by bit.”
Back atop the hill, Israeli soldiers stand guard around the perimeter as the Jewish families pack up. The shouts of Palestinian protesters float up from below. Smoke from their burning tires scents the air.
Suddenly, at the highest point of the hilltop, a crane rumbles. Slowly, it lifts a huge Star of David crafted of welded steel into the air. Men scramble to cement it firmly into the limestone.
From Akal’s village, it can’t be missed.