Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 13:11 UK

Israeli outposters vow to stay

Ma'ale Rehavam outpost in the West Bank
Ma'ale Rehavam is on the list to be removed under the first stage of the 2003 Road Map peace plan

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

The hills stretch out, barren and hazy, towards the Dead Sea. But as Danny Halamish gazes out from his caravan, he imagines gleaming towns.

"I'm here to claim this land on behalf of the Jewish people," he says.

"We are at the forefront of Zionism… In past generations there were similar places that are now major cities. This region will eventually also become a big populated area."

The father of two shows me around the cramped mobile home he has lived in for much of his seven years in Ma'ale Rehavam.

The cluster of about 10 such dwellings perched on the unforgiving West Bank hills is one of about 100 sites known as outposts, which have hit the headlines as US President Barack Obama has increased pressure on Israel to end settlement activity.

Danny Halamish, resident of Ma'ale Rehavam
Danny Halamish believes God gave the land to the Jewish people

At least 280,000 Jews live in settlements (with a further 180,000 living in East Jerusalem), established in the occupied West Bank with government backing, in contravention of international law.

But the outposts are unofficial, illegal even under Israeli law.

Both settlements and outposts break up the contiguity of the land which Palestinians want for their own state - as do the roads linking them and military exclusion zones.

Rights groups say about 30% of the land they cover is privately owned by Palestinians.

Piles of debris

Half an hour's drive away, past the red-roofs of the settlement of Kochav Hashahar, the bulldozers have just left.

Figures move among piles of debris.

Two weeks ago, the same day as the tiny cluster of wooden shacks was destroyed, the 40 or so residents of the Maoz Ester outpost began rebuilding.

Now, again, they are pulling their religious books from the wreckage and vowing to rebuild.

Residents of Maoz Ester after it was demolished on 3 June 2009
Maoz Ester's residents say they will rebuild each time it is destroyed

Left-wingers such as Dror Etkes of the Israeli rights group Yesh Din say that in this cat and mouse game of destructions and rebuilding, the authorities are "cooperating perfectly with what the settlers want them to do".

By focusing on a handful of "dummy outposts", he says, they are distracting attention from wider government-sanctioned construction in existing settlements and of related infrastructure.

Left wingers say the building is a continued effort to grab strategically important land.

The government says it is merely keeping pace with settler population growth.

Former US President George Bush apparently turned a blind eye to such "natural growth," but Mr Obama has explicitly called for it to stop.

Under the 2003 Road Map - a staged peace plan agreed under Mr Bush - Israel pledged to remove all outposts and freeze settlement activity.

Map showing outposts of Ma'ale Rehavam, Maoz Ester and Amona in West Bank

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The first phase was the immediate removal of outposts established since 2001.

Israel says there were 26 of these, of which 4 have been removed.

Government support

The Israeli organisation Peace Now says there are close to 50, and the few evacuations that have taken place have been partial or the settlers have returned.

Ma'ale Rehavam, Mr Halamish's home, is among the 26, but he thinks the residents will "probably not" be evicted.

He disputes that the outposts are illegal, saying government policy has been changeable and contradictory over the years.

Indeed, as foreign minister in 1998, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israelis should "run and grab as many hilltops as they can".

And a 2005 government commission found state funds had been funnelled extensively to the outposts - Mr Halamish says Ma'ale Rehavam's power lines, water supply and access road were "partially built by the government".

He says the military post some soldiers at the outpost.

The outposters are armed - Mr Halamish spent a few months in jail for assault for firing what he says were "warning shots" at some Palestinians who tried to "invade" the unfenced community.

He says the security forces "always take the Arab's side".

But the human rights group B'tselem accuse the Israeli authorities of "leniency" towards settlers, who they say commit "substantial violence" against West Bank Palestinians.

Amona experience

Further north, Amona, at the end of a winding road up a rocky hill, was the scene of the last major battle over a closure of an outpost, when nine houses were destroyed in 2006.

The clashes between thousands of settlers and police were described as "unprecedented" and loom large over any plans for future evacuations of outposts.

Resident Yehoyada Nizri, 33, a father of six, says all but one of the families evicted three years ago have returned.

Yehoyada Nizri, resident of Amona outpost, next to remains of houses destroyed in 2006
Mr Nizri says most of the families whose homes were destroyed in 2006 have returned

Mr Nizra and Mr Halamish both believe God gave the land to the Jews rendering all other claims to it irrelevant.

They talk passionately about their sense of connection to the land, and believe the God is still on their side.

As for the Palestinians, "eventually they will not live here" says Mr Halamish.

Where will they go?

"That you will have to ask them."

"Uganda," half-jokes Mr Nizra, in reference to the early Zionist idea of creating a Jewish state in the African nation, "they could live very well over there."

And then he turns serious.

"I'm very sad for them. Truly I am. I have no problem with them," Mr Nizra says.

"But this land was given to us, almost 4,000 years ago. It belongs to the Jewish people, and not to anyone else."

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