Hilltop 26 is the name of an illegal settlement outpost atop a tranquil, windswept hill just outside Kiryat Arba, in the southern West Bank. From its top, one can see the red roofs of the Jewish settlement to the south and, in the distance, the outskirts of the holy city of Hebron. Over the past two months, adolescent settlers from Kiryat Arba have built a structure atop Hilltop 26 that they use as a clubhouse for eating, studying and hanging out. Although Hilltop 26 was dismantled in 1999, it has been consistently inhabited by settlers, whose ultimate aim is for it to be incorporated into the settlement of Kiryat Arba. Despite being classified by the Israeli government as an "illegal outpost," Hilltop 26 is actively protected by the Israel Defense Forces.
In this time of heightened discussion regarding Israeli settlement expansion, a topic that figured prominently in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Barack Obama earlier this week, the conversation often centers on the challenge of removing settlers from settlements and outposts. This focus is misleading. Instead, attention should be drawn to how the IDF is both actively and passively involved in the creation and maintenance of outposts throughout the territories, as the body implementing decisions on the ground. Ta’ayush, the Arab-Jewish partnership group based in Jerusalem, has been documenting the expansion of illegal outposts throughout the southern West Bank.
One recent example is Hilltop 26, where over the past six weeks, Ta’ayush activists have observed a consistent settler presence and the IDF’s active participation in defending their claim to the outpost. Every time we approach the site, an IDF patrol promptly arrives and declares it a "closed military zone," forcing us to evacuate the area, but permitting the settlers to remain. This order is an oft-used IDF method for removing peace activists intent on documenting settlement expansion and settler violence. Sometimes the IDF is so concerned with our efforts that the soldiers bar us from entering the West Bank itself, citing only that they have the discretion to decide who enters and who does not.
The land that the Hilltop 26 outpost sits on belongs to the Palestinian Ja’abar family, but was expropriated by the Israeli government under an anachronistic land expropriation law dating back to the Ottoman era (which cites that all land not populated or worked by its owners for three consecutive years is to be reclaimed by the government). This is a deliberate land grab being committed not just by settlers, but by the state itself and its various institutions, which are collectively paving the way for this outpost to become part of Kiryat Arba.
On May 8, after weeks of being repeatedly evacuated by the IDF upon arrival at the hilltop, Ta’ayush activists and Palestinians residents of the area constructed a protest structure there. Our logic was that if our presence there is illegal and requires our removal, the settlers’ presence is also illegal and they, too, should be forced to leave. However, despite the IDF and police instructing all people in the area to evacuate within three minutes, no settlers were actually forced to leave. Our day of peaceful protest ended with our being physically assaulted by settlers, and with eight Israeli members of Ta’ayush detained for violating the "closed military zone" order. The settlers were not arrested, despite clear videotaped evidence of them assaulting the peace activists as well as attempting to burn our structure to the ground.
Since we broke no laws and posed no threat of violence, the only logical explanation is that the IDF was trying to prevent us from observing and documenting illegal settlement expansion.
The IDF and Israeli government have clearly made a decision to actively support the outpost of Hilltop 26. While it is still a small structure, the time-honored pattern of land grabs is clear : It starts with a clubhouse, then a mobile home and pretty soon the settlers will have built a house equipped with running water and gas. Hilltop 26 is only one example of the 100 or so outposts of this kind throughout the West Bank.
The settler movement is not as strong as it is portrayed in the Israeli and international media. Without the active and passive support of both the government and the armed forces, the settlers’ efforts would be rendered useless. Without it being possible to freely document and expose these matters, Israel’s government will continue to use the image of the settlers as a cover for its own overt policy of support for settlement creation and maintenance in the West Bank.