Nachum Schwartz cautiously eyed the rugged landscape where he hopes to build his new home.
“You see here, where there are thorns? That means no one ever lived or worked here and there is nothing written down about any ownership,” he said.
The point is especially potent to Schwartz, who two months ago was forced out of his home of 20 years in the West Bank outpost of Amona. The settlement was bulldozed this winter after it came to light that it was built on land owned by Palestinian farmers living nearby.
The government has proposed resettling the families on a site just outside the Jewish settlement of Shvut Rachel, to what would be the first new Jewish settlement in 20 years.
But it is still unclear when, or even if, the new settlement will be built. A multitude of obstacles stand in the way, from bureaucratic complications to Palestinian claims to the land and international pressure.
Schwartz said the families, most of whom are now living in a crowded school dormitories in the nearby settlement of Ofra, need an “immediate solution.”
“We need somewhere to live now and we want to stay together as a community,” he said. And the location must have ideological meaning.
“Shiloh is the cradle of the nation of Israel. This is where our roots are,” Schwartz said, adding that he still dreams of returning to the hilltop where Amona stood.
That location, about a 20-minute drive south of here, was deemed by Israel’s supreme court as belonging to farmers from the Palestinian village of Silwad. After a decade-long battle with the court and the government, the residents were forced to move, their homes and farms demolished.
Schwartz was one of the founders of Amona 20 years ago. He met his wife there, he had his seven children there and raised a herd of sheep on the land there.
“The sheep are totally messed up” by the lack of a routine, he said. “It’s all very strange for us. But life goes on and we are going to build something new.”
The Israeli government’s approval on March 30 to build a new settlement was widely condemned by much of the international community and viewed by the Palestinians as another Israeli attempt to take over the land.
The Obama administration had considered the settlements an obstacle to peace. President Donald Trump has refrained from directly criticizing the new settlement. But after Israel’s announcement, an official speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post that “while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment to peace, further unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace.”
In a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, Trump said Israel should “hold back on settlements.” Since then, the president has indicated his intentions to restart the stalled peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Palestinian opposition to the very existence of settlements, let alone a new one, could make kick-starting a peace process that much harder.
“Israel continues to destroy the prospects of peace in our region and to severely affect our lives by the theft of land and natural resources, and by the further fragmentation of our country,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Erekat said the settlements violate international law and that Palestinians “are not going to accept any formula that aims at legitimizing the presence of Israeli colonies on occupied Palestinian land.”
After approving the new settlement, Netanyahu tweeted that it was his way of keeping a vow he made to the evicted Amona settlers, who say God promised the land to the Jews. Netanyahu relies heavily on the support from the roughly 400,000 Jewish settlers living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, not including East Jerusalem, which is also considered occupied under international law.
What Netanyahu did not mention is that the new settlement is slated for an area far from the blocks of West Bank Jewish communities that would most likely remain part of Israel under any peace agreement. If a Palestinian state is created, the new settlement and others around it would have to be removed.
“It’s not just the land. The real question is how many more settlers are going to be living there. How many more settlers will they have to figure out how to remove or compensate in the context of a peace deal? Creating a new settlement just makes the problem significantly worse,” Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Israeli Palestinian negotiations, said after the announcement.
But the former residents of Amona say the situation could not get much worse.
Tamar Nizri, her husband and seven of her eight children have been living in two cramped rooms on the second floor of the Ofra youth hostel since Feb. 2.
The paper-thin walls do little to keep out the noise of her neighbors, who are also from Amona. The only place to sit is on her bed, and the children – ages 5 to 17 – sleep in the next room on three sets of bunk beds.
“It’s very stressful here,” she said, as her children came in and out of the room. “But if we leave, then the government and everyone else will forget about us.”
Nizri moved to Amona at 19. Married and with her first child, she said the issue of legal vs. illegal never occurred to her. There were shrubs, rocks and not much more, she said.
“The government gave us electricity, and we thought it would all be all right. We had been raised on stories of other settlements where they built and got the permits later,” she said. Her husband planted grapevines and opened a winery where he produces wines named after each of their children.
“Even after the court ruling two years ago, it still did not hit us that all we had built would be destroyed,” she said.
On demolition day, Nizri allowed dozens of the hundreds of Israeli youths who had turned out to protest the evictions to sleep in her home. When police and soldiers arrived the next day to remove the residents, the youths chained themselves to each other and to the house.
“My house became a symbol of people of Israel. Their presence gave me strength, and I did not want them to leave,” Nizri said.
“I have a connection to the land, just like the Palestinians,” said Nizri. “This land was promised to our forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We were forced out 2,000 years ago and now we are back.”
Nizri said she goes back to visit the place where her old home once stood.
“For us, it was more than a house, it was a home,” she said. “In 20 minutes, 20 years of our life was just destroyed.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Ruth Eglash