Daily Israel Report

Interview: Building the Land of Israel One Tree at a Time

Women in Green director Nadia Matar is doing in Judea and Samaria what the JNF did decades ago – planting trees to keep Israel in Jewish hands.
By Josh Hasten
First Publish: 7/12/2011, 1:09 PM / Last Update: 7/12/2011, 1:06 PM

The loud ring tone blasting from her cell phone interrupts our interview and her train of thought, but Nadia Matar answers it anyway.

Her face becomes animated. “Where is this happening?” she asks the person on the other end of the line. Nadia puts her hand over the mouthpiece and explains, “Bedouins just outside of Jerusalem near Highway One has climbed up a hilltop; they are planning to take it over. They have a bulldozer.”

After getting a few more details she hangs up the phone. “I get calls like this all the time,” she says. 

The problem, explains Women for Israel’s Tomorrow (Women in Green or WIG) director, and affirmed by co-director Yehudit Katsover, is that the Arabs are trying to physically take over the entire country starting with the areas within Judea and Samaria.  Their methodology is simple: create facts on the ground – plants, trees, or even small buildings and then assume complete ownership.

Ten years of working a plot is legal ground for claiming ownership in Israel. As a result, Nadia and Yehudit have mobilized using a similar approach to ensure that every meter of the ancient Land of Israel remain in Jewish hands.

But this strategy wasn’t always part of the organization’s modus operandi. Founded in 1993, upon the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, WIG began staging massive weekly demonstrations throughout the country to raise awareness about the potential danger of the agreement. At that time Nadia’s father-in-law and mother-in-law, Michael and Ruth Matar, were at the helm.

During one such demonstration, a group of female activists, dressed in green, stood on Israel’s border with Samaria calling on all Israelis to “wake up” before the government shrunk the country back to the 1949 armistice lines. The image that was embedded in the media's conscious was the green uniforms, and the nickname “Women in Green” was born and stuck ever since. Nadia insists that while Israeli women have always been at the forefront of the organization, plenty of men are involved as well.

From 1993 till the beginning of 2005, the organization was at the forefront of the “Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah (the ‘complete Land of Israel’) movement, vociferous against trading Land for a peace deal. In fact, Nadia has been arrested dozens of times throughout the years at various demonstrations, usually charged with “disturbing the peace.”

In 2005, the movement was at the head of the opposition against Israel’s planned withdrawal from Gaza. Nadia managed to sneak into the Gush Katif community of Kfar Yam and at the same time Yehudit, then a leading activist and the director of the local teacher’s college in Kiryat Arba, was in Gadid, also ini Gush Katif.

Yehudit says that until the very last minute “a lot of the people in Gush Katif were in denial regarding to what was about to happen. I was there as a realist and to inspire the residents to struggle to keep their homes and communities.”  Both Nadia and Yehudit were forced to leave along with all of Gaza’s Jewish residents.

After Gush Katif, Nadia and Yehudit decided to join forces under the Women in Green umbrella, determined not to let what happened in Gush Katif repeat itself in Judea and Samaria. While the Gush Katif residents were freshly smarting from their traumatic loss after the expulsion, which the government called “Disengagement,” WIG went right back to work, but with a changed strategy.

“We understood that our methods were no longer effective” says Nadia. “Multiple demonstrations did not save Gush Katif.” Nadia says that WIG held a series of marathon meetings with Judea and Samaria leaders to strategize their next move.

In the end it was decided to change their direction entirely. Instead of organizing demonstrations the group became determined to create “facts of the ground” throughout Judea and Samaria.

The model to be implemented was based on the 1979 takeover of Beit-Hadassah in Hevron, which ultimately led to the establishment of the first Jewish community in Hevron since Israel’s founding. Yehudit herself was part of the group of ten women and their 40 children who sneaked into the historical building in the middle of the night after Pesach in that year.

After a year in the building and living under harsh conditions, one Friday night Arab terrorists murdered six yeshiva students from Kiryat Arba whose custom was to come and sing and dance outside of Beit-Hadassah to strengthen the group’s spirits. The attack along with the presence and sheer determination of the women to remain in Hevron eventually led to the Begin government’s decision to allow Jews to settle in Hevron permanently.

According to Yehudit, the campaign to establish a Jewish presence in Hevron was successful and needed to be implemented in WIG’s arsenal because of its three pronged approach: establishing a presence in the field, backing it up by an effective PR campaign targeting the general public, and lobbying politicians to endorse and support the initiative. Yehudit says that all three facets of that plan were implemented in Hevron, and the results speak for themselves.

Using that model, over the past six years WIG has strategically targeted areas throughout Judea and Samaria (mainly Judea) in order to try and establish a physical Jewish presence. Specifically the group looks to overtake unsettled State land – areas owned by the government under the jurisdiction of the Israel Land Authorities (ILA). Technically, these areas can be leased by the government to expand existing Jewish communities throughout Judea and Samaria, but because of commitments under various peace agreements, and for political reasons according to WIG, the government fails to issue building permits.

Nadia says that while these are State lands, the Arabs constantly confiscate swaths of these areas and take them over for building or agricultural purposes. “The Arabs have no claim to these areas,” says Nadia. “They are specifically designated for the expansion of Jewish communities, but that is not the case. It’s unfortunate when Arab squatters take over these areas, but nothing is enforced. That is why we feel it is integral for us to take these areas over.”

Nadia points to several WIG success stories including the clarification of the status of the Lands known as the Eitam hill, the Northern-most hill in Efrat. She says that while a local Arab family claimed the land as theirs, the fact that WIG had a constant presence on the hill and also held weekly gatherings and events for local residents, supported by Members of Knesset, led the authorities to explore the area’s true ownership. In the end it was determined that Eitam was in fact State Land belonging to Efrat, and the Arabs who claimed ownership have backed off.

Another success is the area known as Shedma, a hill on the road linking Jerusalem to the Eastern Gush communities including Tekoa and Nokdim. Shedma was the site of an old dismantled IDF base and at one point several years ago was in the process of being transferred over to the Palestinian Authority. WIG was adamantly against the move for ideological reasons, but also for security reasons since the hill which is adjacent to the road offers panoramic views of the neighboring Arab communities.

In 2008 WIG held weekly gatherings at Shedma where activists and right wing government officials would express their desire to see the hill remain in Jewish hands. As a result the government decided not to turn over the area to the PA and instead reestablished a 24/7 IDF presence there to protect Jewish motorists in the area.

Most recently, Nadia and Yehudit have been taking a “green thumb” approach to re-asserting Jewish sovereignty over State Land, by planting. A special fund called “Yibaneh” assists in funding agricultural Jewish planting in various strategic locations. The most known of these areas is the ‘Netzer’ hill, between the Gush Etzion communities of Elazar and Alon Shvut.

With a detailed map in hand, Nadia gives this reporter an extensive tour of the hill pointing out, which areas are unsettled State lands and which belong to the local Arab farmers. She shows how WIG supporters have planted hundreds of trees and vines – olives, grapes, figs and more – in order to send a message that these areas belong to Israel. The fields have turned into a game of tree “color war,” with the roots and branches of Jewish planted trees wrapped in brown protective sacks (to prevent roaming animals in the areas from grazing) while the Arabs wrap their crops using white.

Nadia details the almost weekly incidents of local Arabs who have uprooted trees and damaged watering mechanisms. “It’s ok,” she says. “If they destroy we will just come back and plant again. Sometimes it’s even good for us because when they trespass and cause damage on Jewish Land, the army is forced to come out and settle the dispute. When the army comes and brings their maps and sees that this isn’t Arab land, this just helps our case.”

Nadia recalls, “the Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism [Khuloud Daibes] came all the way from Ramallah with about 100 friends to plant in the area. This is almost a badge of honor for us since it shows that they are so bothered by what we are doing and came all the way from Ramallah to try and thwart our efforts."

She is grateful for the support of the local municipality in the Gush. According to Gush Etzion Regional Authority head Shaul Goldstein, “Whenever there is cooperation between WIG and his office there has been success.” He points out how the Gush municipality openly backed WIG’s efforts calling for a full time security presence at Shedma. “The result,” says, Goldstein “was excellent.” He adds that the security situation on the Eastern road to the Gush is much better today as a result.

“However our municipality must wear two hats,” Shaul adds. “We are all for the Jewish right to build in the Land of Israel, but we are the establishment, so we have to make sure what we do is completely within the law. We work very closely with the Civil Administration, the army, police on many matters and this is no different. When there is open communication and coordination most recently in places like Netzer, we [WIG and my office] are like two engines jointly pushing towards the same goal.”

When asked about the future, Yehudit says that she is “optimistic.” She says that more and more people are realizing the importance of this struggle and are willing to lend a hand. Nadia notes that this summer WIG is running a two-week summer camp for teenagers at Netzer. Activities include, of course, planting trees throughout the area and guided sessions on the importance of building in the Land of Israel. Even youngsters from the United States are flying in to participate. Both are hopeful that one day Netzer will be a new flourishing neighborhood which will connect the communities of Elazar and Alon Shvut.

Yehudit adds that “just like in the United States where you can live where you want to, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to here. This is our land.”

In the midst of typing my phone rings, and its Nadia. She and Yehudit have been called in for questioning by the Gush Civilian administration and the area police. She explains that the previous night at about 2 a.m. a group of WIG supporters, with the help of a local Jewish farmer, planted several large olive trees on Netzer, donated by a farmer in the North. However by 7a.m. she is notified by a witness that local Arab farmers have already started chopping down the trees.

Nadia, Yehudit, and some friends rush to the scene and in her words are “confronted violently” by a group of Arabs lead by someone who is later revealed to be a known Palestinian activist.  During the altercation, the police and army arrive to separate the two sides, but everyone involved is taken to the station for questioning.  Six hours later Nadia and Yehudit are released, accused of trespassing and disturbing the peace, given a restraining order not to return to Netzer for 15 days while tension simmers down.

Nadia isn’t shaken. “This is a constant battle, for every piece of land. We will struggle over and over till our enemies realize that we won’t raise our hands in surrender.”