A settler stakes claim for himself, for Israel

West Bank: A father and son tend sheep on their isolated farm, with four Israeli soldiers to guard their "settlement."

May 22, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IN THE HEBRON HILLS, West Bank - Ever since he watched American Westerns on television three decades ago, Shlomo Mor knew he wanted a ranch. He dreamed of having a flock of sheep. Open vistas. Room to roam.

He has that now atop a hill he calls Mor Mountain. Until last week, he and a son were the only people on a 1,000-acre farm where they tend 105 sheep, 10 dogs and two goats.

Mor Mountain, among the newest Jewish settlements in the West Bank, illustrates how they come to be and how they evolve into permanent communities.

Last week, the Israeli army assigned four soldiers to guard the two residents. The World Zionist Organization, an umbrella organization for Zionist philanthropy and development, paid for the paving of a one-lane, two-mile access road, in effect the Mors' driveway.

For the rightist government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the farm is another foothold in the West Bank, territory at the heart of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. It is land that many Israelis believe God promised to the Jews and that Palestinians no less firmly believe is a necessary part of a future Palestinian state.

Sharon has vowed never to dismantle a settlement; Palestinians vow that there can be no true peace until most of the settlements are gone.

For Mor and the Israeli government, the situation on the hilltop could not be better. Mor gets to gaze out over land leased for a nominal fee from the government, and Israeli authorities have found a way to populate - Palestinians would say steal - another sliver of the West Bank.

Mor knows the government is using him to further its political aim of controlling as much of the West Bank as possible though the creation and expansion of Jewish settlements.

"I know why I'm here," he said, sipping instant coffee in his trailer. "Israel wants to make sure this land remains in Israeli hands. I'm protecting their back. I came here on my own free will, so I can't complain."

He arrived on March 7, 1999, to live amid a landscape composed mostly of rocks and scrub. He planned to raise goats and sell their milk to Bedouin tribes and Palestinian villages. But the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 ended friendly contacts between settlers and villagers.

Mor replaced most of his goats with sheep and intended to sell them for meat. A year and a half later, he is beginning to breed them.

His work now consists of little more than feeding his flock, which takes only a couple of hours each day. He spends the rest of his time planting trees and keeping watch - for thieves or potential attackers.

Mor knows that the soldiers sent to stand at the four corners of his ranch are really there to expand the Israeli military's hold on the area and that his presence is a perfect excuse to justify their patrols.

Soldiers guard settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Mor Mountain, given its tiny population, underscores the burden the settlements impose on the Israeli army and the vast resources devoted to protecting them from their Palestinian neighbors.

The soldiers guarding the Mors are reservists, forced to leave their jobs and family under emergency call-up orders originally put into effect to fight Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Some Israeli lawmakers call the deployment at Mor Mountain an insult to the army.

"The very fact that reserve soldiers are sent to guard isolated farms like that is scandalous," Anat Maor of the left-wing Meretz Party told parliament.

Dror Etkes of the group Peace Now says there are at least 30 outposts like Mor's farm, and others with empty trailers waiting for settlers to arrive.

"The idea is to settle as much of the land as possible to avoid the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state," Etkes said. "Once there are people there, it is much easier [for the government] to say they can stay. If you are going to argue that God promised people this land, then people have to live there."

Leaders of the settler movement say the Israeli government is not doing enough to aid their cause. Outposts such as Mor Mountain don't mean much, says Ezra Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Yesha settlers' council.

"If you got two guys living in five trailers this year, and you go back next year, maybe you got five guys living in 10 trailers," he said. "More often than not, unfortunately, you won't find anything."

If the government wants to populate isolated areas such as Mor Mountain, Rosenfeld says, it is obligated to protect them.

"It would be easier, I admit, if everyone lived in one town with a big wall," he said. "But that is not the reality. In order to populate the land, we need so-called crazies to go out to hills and inhabit them. The cost is inefficient use of soldiers."

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