|By Roland S. Süssmann|
One of the key statements in the historic speech that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave at Bar Ilan University on 14 June 2009 was, “It is an absolute necessity to allow the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria to live a normal life, and let mothers and fathers bring up their children like everywhere else. The inhabitants of these areas are neither enemies of the people nor enemies of peace. On the contrary, they are an integral part of our population, people with ideals, pioneers and Zionists”. Which means that the Jewish presence in this area is not just totally legal, but must be supported and developed.
To understand the direct implications of this declaration of fundamental principles and what reality is like on the ground, we requested an interview with one of the leaders of the movement to people Judea, Samaria and Gaza, ZEEV CHEVER, known in Israel as “Zambich”. For over twenty years it has been he who has organized and supervised the building program for homes in Judea, Samaria and Gush Katif. He has thus been directly and entirely legally involved in settling over 300,000 throughout these regions. All of this has taken place through a company called Amana, whose work covers the development of homes and infrastructure in Judea and Samaria.
“Zambich” is one of those men who prefer action to talk. He is not active in politics, but rather builds and develops Jewish towns, in a word he creates facts on the ground. He is discreet and efficient, and never gives interviews because he works relentlessly at his mission, to people as quickly as possible the lands of Israel. The traumatizing experience of the destruction of Gush Katif confirmed what he knew already, that the facts he is establishing on the ground could only be overturned through a policy of Israeli weakness. So he has to increase the number of Jewish homes throughout Judea and Samaria as fast as possible, while awaiting the opportunity to rebuild Gush Katif. He knows that hot on his heels is a destructive political process motored by the illusion that the abandonment of Israel’s lands to the Arabs will lead to a negotiated and permanent peace.
Can you in a few words retrace for us the recent history of the populating of these areas?
During the first decade following the Six Day War, only some 4,000 Israeli Jews settled in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was only in 1977, when Menachem Begin came to power, that the movement really took off. Between 1977 and 1992 we managed to settle a bit over 100,000 Jews on these ancestral lands. In 1992 the Labor Party came to power and from that moment on all governmental support effectively ended. I have to say that during the seventeen years of Likud government all the infrastructure (roads, water, electricity etc) was put in place. However, from 1992 we have had to work in conditions of almost total adversity, and everything was done to block us. To illustrate what I am saying, I would recall that even buildings completed and paid for by their buyers were simply not connected to the water or electricity supplies or to other municipal services, thereby hindering the growth of the Jewish population. Despite everything, since 1992 we have succeeded in raising the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria from 100,000 Israeli Jews to just over 300,000 (not counting East Jerusalem). That represents a constant annual growth rate of between 5.5% and 6.5% per annum.
Despite everything, during the past seventeen years there was a Netanyahu government, during which time your task should have been easier. What was the truth of the matter?
You have to understand that in construction planning, nothing is done in the short-term. What we organize today will happen on the ground in three, five or even seven years. This can incidentally lead to some astonishing situations. In July 1992 the Rabin government decided to stop all construction work in our areas, yet the best year for Jewish population growth was 1994, when it went up almost 12%, right in the middle of the illusory euphoria for Oslo. It was simply the fruition of population programs set up by Ariel Sharon in 1991-92. There are thus no direct consequences that result from governmental decisions concerning construction or stopping construction. That’s the situation today in Maale Adumim, where houses planned in 2005 are being built, and in Gush Etzion, where building permits were issued in 2001. To answer your question about the Netanyahu government, things in general were a bit easier, but we were still suffering from the stoppages of the Rabin government.
What is the situation like today?
Firstly, I want to salute the courage of the men and women who live in our areas. Notwithstanding terrorism and the daily dangers with which they are faced, they have not abandoned the area, rather the contrary. They have in fact done everything to create a living environment that is as normal as possible and have expanded their families.
We could easily grow three or four times faster, because many young people from our region and from every corner of the country want to come to live in Judea and Samaria, for a large number of reasons, including family unification, quality of life, cost of housing, religious and/or Zionist ideology and others. Unfortunately the government has been putting serious obstacles in our way for many years. However, we have always been lucky enough to have had in one or other of recent governments someone who is more open to our problems and who has let us grow, albeit very slowly. Despite everything, we were in a very difficult situation and had to find ways to continue our work. We built caravans, obtained loans for building so that inhabitants could increase their homes by adding on a caravan or a floor etc. This way we let the residents meet the immediate needs of the natural increase of families and above all retaining young couples. Acting this way we have managed to save the older settlements and to build up the smaller ones. This has also allowed us to maintain our average rate of population growth of between 5% and 6% per annum.
Having said which, we are today in a very difficult situation. In fact, long before the pressure from Washington, the Olmert government had completely stopped us from growing. In towns that have existed for twenty years, for example Karnei Shomron (see article), no building permits have been issued for almost six years. In other words, everything has been done to dry up and stifle Jewish population growth in Judea and Samaria. Despite everything, we have managed to set up a couple of dozen more caravans, which is really not much. We have to realize that if this state of affairs continues and gets worse, within two or three years we will be completely blocked, something we have to avoid at all costs.
Experience and history have proven that you are not the sort to let yourself be blocked. In practical terms, what are you planning to do to give a boost to populating the Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria?
I read in the papers that the nationalist camp won the elections. It’s possible that is true on paper. However, for the time being policy has not changed and we are still faced with the same obstacles and building permits, even in dribs and drabs, have to wait.
It is clear to us that this situation cannot continue and that we have to do everything to recommence building work, this time on a large scale. We are faced today with both a government and Knesset that are more nationalist, and which better understand what are the requirements on the ground. We are increasing our meetings with politicians in order to advance our cause. While we are very aware that we are talking about a slow process, we are nonetheless very pressed for time. At the practical level, we have not stopped building, and there are many projects being carried out based on old building permits. They are not nearly enough and by far do not meet the huge demand we have. I have good reason to hope that the present government will release a certain number of permits and will not give in to all Mr. Obama’s dictates, but nor do I believe that we will be given a completely free hand.
But what if the current government continues to act like the Olmert government and construction effectively remains frozen? What will you do?
As I said, we are doing everything to avoid reaching such a point. But I will answer you as an Israeli Jew. I recall that after the Six Day War, the British were annoyed because we were not prepared to given in to some of their pressure. To punish us, they refused to deliver us Chieftain tanks. What did we do? We developed and built the Merkava, which today is one of the most powerful tanks in the world. So if we are decided, resourceful and sufficiently inventive, the projects that are dear to us can be carried out. If the situation becomes untenable and we are prohibited from doing anything, we will find the legal means to succeed. It is well known that when you try to block the course of a river, it forms its bed elsewhere, and the water continues to flow through a redirected route. At this point I would remind you that we have about 12,000 births per annum. Can parents really be told, “The fact that you have children is your responsibility, but we cannot let you house them”? An old saying has it that “when everything is prohibited – everything is allowed”. But we are definitely not there. On the contrary, everything points to us finding viable, acceptable solutions in direct, effective and full cooperation with the government.
You speak of solutions, authorizations and legality. But haven’t you in fact built all your settlements on land stolen from Arabs?
Absolutely not. The question of land in Judea and Samaria is very clearly regulated. 40% is registered in the land registry of the State of Israel, land whose owners are known and whose boundaries are clearly identified. As for the other 60%, their status is described in land registers that date from the various Ottoman, British and Jordanian occupations. The law is very precise concerning these lands. Any land where the owner is not clearly identifiable is deemed to belong to the state. We only build on government land. We have never built on Arab land that has been expropriated or confiscated by force. I do not in fact believe something like that exists in our areas. As far as we are concerned, it is completely out of the question that one of us would found a settlement, a village or a house on land belonging to someone else. Having said which, you should be aware that Arabs who sell us land are condemned to death by the Palestinian Authority courts and are hanged in public. Which is why even if a sale is fully recorded on video, both the transaction and the paying in of the cash by the Arab seller, he will always deny his involvement in the sale. He will say we beat him or threatened reprisals against him and his family to force him to sell. Which of course is untrue.
Do you believe an expulsion of Israeli Jews from Judea and Samaria, as took place in Gaza, could be possible.
I do not believe that is an option that can be reasonably envisaged. It does not tally with our Prime Minister, his history, his personality, or his way of looking at the population that lives in these areas. I therefore do not believe that he is expecting this type of expulsion, and what’s more, he does not have a coalition that will let him do such a thing. To which we must add that Israelis have seen the results of our flight from Gush Katif, and would not accept repeating that sort of catastrophe. Having said which, after what Ariel Sharon did, nothing can be excluded. Despite everything, the facts on the ground, meaning the number of existing buildings and the size of the population, play a decisive role for the future and for the political decisions to be taken. Let’s not forget that in Gush Katif there were about 80,000 people while in Judea and Samaria we have over 300,000 living in more than 70,000 housing units.
Under such conditions, do you believe that an investment in real estate in Judea and Samaria is in fact without risk?
It must be emphasized that everyone who built legally and with authorization in Gush Katif got their money back. Of course there were no profits and the monies were only paid after a lot of administrative hassle, but at the end of the day the people expelled got what they were entitled to, namely the amount of their original investment. Anyone who wants to invest in projects for which we are responsible, namely legally and with all required permits can do so in complete peace of mind. He can expect that his investment will be profitable. I mentioned reimbursements made for Gush Katif, but the same was also the case following Yamit. And incidentally, the banks today are still giving mortgages for building in our area.
Must people who want to settle in Judea and Samaria meet certain religious or ideological criteria?
In the urban areas, for example such as Maale Adumim, Ariel and others, the choice of inhabitants is the same as in Tel-Aviv or Haifa. People can settle down there wherever they find an apartment that suits them. In the smaller villages, where the population is very homogenous, often made up of a group of people who knew each other before coming there, it is possible that some criteria will be required, not just to settle but to be able to live there and integrate. But as such areas become larger and distinct districts develop, this issue gradually loses its significance.
The Jewish land of Judea and Samaria covers an area of about 5,500 sq. km. Is there any part that should be developed as a priority?
When you look at the map you see that there is a place right in the middle of the country called Ariel, which from a topographical point of view is virtually at the centre of Israel. The town is located exactly 40 km from the Mediterranean coast and 40 km from the Jordanian border, on the East-West axis. On the North-South axis, Ariel is about 40 km from Ramallah and 40 km from Jenin. It is the town that has suffered the most in terms of growth. Today Ariel has only 17,000 inhabitants. It had initially been planned that Ariel would be as big as Maale Adumim, which today has 38,000 people. Each of these two towns was meant to become the “metropolis” of their region, Ariel for Samaria and Maale Adumim for Judea. Unfortunately, construction has been blocked in Ariel since the Rabin period, notwithstanding the excellent road network linking it to Tel-Aviv, its university and many other advantages. This policy of hanging out Ariel to dry is already starting to have results. In fact every American negotiator to come to Israel over recent years has told Israeli leaders, “You can see that Ariel is not developing, so you can certainly evacuate it”. To their way of thinking, it is not just a matter of liquidating Ariel, but the entire central Judea and Samaria region where almost 100,00 Jews live, because their being there is preventing the creation of contiguous to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel. So at the strategic level, this place and the entire region are of capital importance as much for the security of inhabitants along the Mediterranean coast as for the Jordan Valley.
If, as we hope, the matter of building permits is facilitated, Ariel will be given priority in construction. This all the more logical on account of all the infrastructure that has already been installed there for a long time. The other priority is Maale Adumim and its connection through construction to Jerusalem. And lastly, we are obliged to strengthen the small places and to settle as many people there as possible.
In conclusion, following the expulsion of the inhabitants of Gush Katif, have you noted any change in the attitude of the general Israeli population?
Slowly a positive approach towards us is in fact developing. Firstly, a large proportion of the public has understood the extent of the injustice and catastrophe represented by the liquidation of Gush Katif. However, Israelis have also realized that all the processes of weakness that we have not stopped denouncing in recent years have been bad for Israel. The flight from Lebanon (under Ehud Barak in 2000) led to Katyushas launched from Lebanon raining down on the north of the country, while the flight from Gaza resulted in a deluge of Kassams on Sderot and the south of the company. This also facilitated the establishment of Hamas in Gaza. It is true that when you give up territory, terrorism chases you. We abandoned Gush Katif in August 2005, and from February 2006 Hamas was fully installed in Gaza by both elections and force. At the same time the first Kassams fell on Ashkelon… We do not yet have the support of the press, but overall the people have understood our message and are no longer solidly opposed to our growth.
I will conclude by saying that we do not have the right to stop our work, because everyday we are being pushed by a young, dynamic population that is always asking more of us. This is reflected in the simple fact that when we set up one caravan, on average three families want to live there. That’s how I have been able to train a young, capable and determined relief team.