Feature: Avri Ran, Father of the Hilltop Movement
Avraham (Avri) Ran, the revolutionary father of the hilltop outposts, gave a rare public glimpse into his idealism and hopes for the future as he defended himself in a Jerusalem court last week.
"I was born to live free," Ran told the court Wednesday. "I was born on a Kibbutz. I was injured in the army. I was released. I opened a factory. About twelve years ago, I received agreement from my family to engage in settlement. I took a backpack and settled on a hilltop that I had ascertained was ownerless. A struggle ensued that continued for many years - with Palestinians, with members of the left, and with the Israeli government."
Ran's achievements are impressive. He founded the largest and most elaborate organic farm in Israel using only his personal funds; building it little by little, without any help or protection from the police or IDF. Everything on his hilltops was built using Avoda Ivrit - Jewish labor, an old-time Zionist concept that Ran considers critical in renewing the Jewish connection to the land. There are also no fences surrounding any of Ran’s hilltops. He considers fences to signify defensiveness and a willingness to forgo that which is outside the fence. Many others have now emulated Avri's way of settling the land - leaving the confines of the gated communities for the biblical bounty of the barren hills and valleys of Judea and Samaria and making them blossom.
"In the beginning I was completely alone," Ran said. "Ten or fifteen Arabs would come. Fierce confrontations. They had to bring me a needle and thread to stitch up my wounds. Always alone. Nobody ever heard me scream ‘ay.’ "
"Slowly a group of youngsters formed around me - teenagers who had not found their place. I had to live with the vomit and craziness of some of them, to sign papers at the nuthouse that we would be responsible for others. Everything with the agreement of their parents.
"We went to another hilltop and another. The moment a community was founded, I would move to another hilltop and the confrontations would start anew. I was portrayed as one of the things that I had tried to escape from my whole life - as a leader, a guru. Incorrect claims. I never agreed to be either a politician or a shaliach tzibor, a prayer leader.
"I was apparantly threatening to the neighborhood, though," Avri added. "The phenomenon was difficult for the members of the Yesha Council of Judea, Samaria and Gaza Communities. After years of no communities being founded in the State of Israel through private initiative and means, it was unacceptable to them. They said to me, ‘Avri, because of you we are not receiving budget allocations - get down quickly!’ I answered them, ‘I am not your emissary. I am from the Land of Israel, and me and my sweet nation are doing things.”
"Two frameworks were created," Ran complained to the court. "On the one hand, every government minister that came to northern Samaria would ask to meet with me. Former Shabak chief Avi Dichter, when he was learning the ropes, knew he could come to me to discuss legal matters or stay the night. When the IDF brigade or district commanders had to coordinate positions in the region they would do so with me. On the other hand, there was an organized program of persecution - the hunt for Avri Ran.”
Ran went on to describe those who gathered around his ideology of Jewish self-sacrifice for the Land and Nation of Israel. "Hilltop youth," Ran mused, "hundreds of people, many of them in elite units; family men. Some of them pilots in the IDF, some pilots of settling the land. This youth, to differentiate from how they were portrayed in the fear-sowing media, learned to raise sheep, to love, to help. They are my children, some the husbands of the mothers of my grandchildren. I ask that they be proud - it is alright. The Land of Israel is worthy of suffering on her behalf.”
Avri's Wednesday court appearance marked the end of a five-month episode, which started with Ran's arrest during a provocative left-wing/Arab trespass on his planted farmland, continued with a court order confining him to a house not his own, and concluded with his arrest by the police on August 31st while vacationing with his family on the Jordan River, after being on the run for four months.
In April, Ran was indicted for assaulting an Arab man under aggravated circumstances. Members of the extreme-left International Solidarity Movement, together with local Arabs, had driven a tractor onto one of Ran's agricultural fields, followed by a herd of goats that proceeded to eat his produce. Ran responded to the tractor driver's refusal to move off of his crop by pushing him and tearing the electrical wires out of the tractor. He was almost immediately apprehended by riot police and left-wing activists who had been waiting nearby. "When there is an Arab attack it takes the police sometimes two or three hours to get here," Avri's wife Sharona said, "but Avri pushes a guy off a tractor tresspassing on our property and they arrive, with Yassamnikim, special riot police, within three minutes."
"It was an utter and complete provocation," Ran claims. "There is no basis for doing this kind of thing - taking a herd of goats and a tractor to trample on my crop? I did nothing wrong."
Ran was put under house arrest far from his home and family, at the house of his twin brother, Nir Ran, a senior Shabak agent who took leave from the service three months ago. Ran decided to violate his house arrest, "ten minutes after it was decreed," his brother Nir said - and hopped on his motorcycle in rejection of the court order. For four and a half months he lived in the wild, pursued all the while by the police. He planned to show up, with his head held high, to a court hearing at the beginning of September, but the police pre-empted him by five days, arresting him as he vacationed with his wife, ten kids, five grandchildren and two dogs on the Jordan River.
"When I started the outposts, I took with me a coffee-making kit and a sleeping bag, before climbing a distant mountain and settling there alone," Ran told the court. "The Arabs did not like this. There were nights full of struggles. Violent days. From every instance rumors emerged. The Arab imagination is an active one. Today, if a solar water heater falls off of a roof in some Arab village, they immediately say, ‘Avri was here.’ Ninety-nine percent of the time this is incorrect.
"The Arabs are not afraid of me. They revere me. They are wary of me, yes. Have I set out regulations? Certainly. There is not one Arab in the Shechem region who dares to work contrary to my rules. Every Arab knows this. What does this say? This says that there is a Jew in town, a son of Abraham our father - that the ancient Jews have returned a little to the Land of Israel. A Jew must be respected. An Arab, when he sees a Jew, needs to lower his head a little bit."
Ran, who is 50, was born in Kibbutz Nir Chen, in the Negev - the older of a set of identical twins. His grandfather, Natan Rabinovitch, was a renowned agriculturalist, who grew the most widely consumed melons in Israel. He is the one who changed his family name to Ran. His grandmother, Penny, was an actress at Tel Aviv's HaBima theater. They arrived as part of the founding core-group of Kibbutz Sha’ar HaEmekim. Ran’s father was the first child born on the kibbutz, which his family eventually decided to leave. They then joined the core-group founding the town of Yokne’am.
Ran's father grew up and was injured fighting in the War of Independence, during which he met Avri’s mother. They married and founded Kibbutz Nir Chen, which was eventually dissolved, along with their marriage.
Avri’s identical twin brother Nir rose up in the ranks of the security department of the Shabak to become the equivalent of an IDF brigadier general in the agency. Avri’s name came up more than a few times in the Shabak’s Jewish Department, which has somewhat of an obsession with the ‘hilltop youth’ who worked on Avri's farm. The two brothers’ positions on opposite sides of the political barricades never lead to any division between them, though. He chose to be put under house arrest at his brother's home when he was ordered to choose a location outside the Shomron. Nir took leave from the Shabak in order to spend time with his brother during that period.
“The Shabak, I know well,” Avri said. “It is a serious apparatus that carries out its work with much self-sacrifice. There is in the Shabak a fault, however, called the Jewish Department. It is deplorable. I never spoke about this with my brother. He is in a professional position important enough not have to deal with these matters. Matters dealing directly with his work we never spoke about.”
Asked if he thought it created problems for his brother at work that he was related to him, Avri answered: "I assume it created problems for him. To be identified with someone like me in that system, especially during the era of appointments - it creates difficulties. But we don’t talk about that stuff between us. We are good friends - very connected. I love him. We talk all the time. In my opinion, our paths are very similar. He doesn’t have a beard and he goes without a kippa and is not a settler but he is a man who is connected to the Master of the World and to the Nation of Israel. All his life he served the State of Israel. He is also frustrated and sad at the situation."
“Avri was never a violent man,” Nir said of his brother. “Even as a child he was always sticking up for the weaker party. He could see an injured dog or a child who was not accepted by the other kids and he would run to their assistance. It is almost absurd to use the words ‘violent’ and ‘Avri’ in the same sentence."
Nir Ran, despite his years working at the Shabak, refuses to believe the hype fed to the media by members of the agency's Jewish Department. "In my assessment, there is no such thing as the ‘hilltop youth.’ That is not to say that there aren’t youths on the hilltops and in Judea and Samaria. They are there and they are, by and large, wonderful. But when they say ‘hilltop youth,’ it sounds like there is some organization with such a name. It doesn't exist. This originated from the left, from the police and from all sorts of sources with interests in presenting such a thing. Avri is the leader representing what they termed the ‘hilltop youth’ in one respect: That he acts as a role model for them.
"There are, in the territories, left-wing activists - mainly from the Ta’ayush organization. They call themselves 'peace activists,' but basically they are 'war activists.' They have a religion they call ‘peace’ - it is a fundamentalist religion that is very dangerous. They are warmongers that sow the seeds of war in every case where there is a chance for coexistence and peace."
At 16, Avri left the Kibbutz he was living on. He had a girlfriend older than he that the Kibbutz did not approve of so he left and went to Sharm el-Sheikh to work. He eventually joined the IDF, serving first in the elite Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit before leaving it to join the armored corps. He took an officers training course, finished with honors and became a platoon, and eventually company, commander. Today he is a captain in the reserves.
“The other soldiers admired him very much,” a fellow soldier who served with him in the same battalion told Maariv. “He was the best officer and the best navigator. They look at him like he’s G-d. When they would go out to inspect a roadway in the morning he would go on foot ahead of the armored personnel carrier - he was better than any of the Bedouin trackers. It was important for him to show them that a Jew is also able to do such things."
In the armored corps, Avri met Sharona, who became his wife. She had immigrated to Israel with her parents from the United States at the age of four.
The Rans both grew up in secular homes, deciding to return to religion "by chance,” according to Sharona. When their oldest daughter Batya was old enough to go to school, her mother searched for a private school to send her to, and decided on a religious school run by the American Reform movement. “After that I traveled overseas and when I returned I had a religious longing,” Sharona said. “I signed up for a seminar for those returning to religion and there it clicked. I left there an observant woman.”
“A day later she simply said, ‘I am an observant woman.’ I said ‘OK, what do I need to do?’ ” recalled Ran. “She bought me a big black kippa and I simply put it on.”
“Avri didn’t have any doubts. He is not a man of indecision,” said Sharona. “When you jump in a pool, you jump. He learned and studied, but also with religion he found his own way. With regard to his way of thinking, he retained it fully. We have a rabbi that guides us, Rabbi Auerbach. Every time we moved from one hilltop to another I called him and he would offer his blessing. But the question of whether or not to move to Itamar, to G’vaot Olam (the Ran’s current home) - Avri never asked. The rabbi once said to me, ‘And if I had told him 'No...'? He who needs to run to the hills should go to the hills.’ ”
The idea of founding a community of newly religious Jews connected with Rabbi Auerbach had already been raised - the chosen location was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s community of Mevo Modi’in. The plan never materialized, though.
Ran began to work as a contractor, preserving old protected buildings in Tel Aviv. Then, as today, Ran insisted on only hiring Jewish workers. Former drug addicts in various stages of rehabilitation gathered around him from around the city and he became not only their boss, but a father figure. Ran’s first chicken coop in Itamar was built by them. “This group were prepared to walk through fire and water with him,” said a relative of one of the men. “He hosted them and took care of them and paid their debts. In that respect, it was the beginning of what they call the ‘hilltop youth’ - youths to whom Avri was a role model.”
Avri commuted every day from Moshav Beit Meir, where he bought farmland and set up an organic chicken farm and fruit orchard while working full time as a contractor in Tel Aviv.
The Rans then joined several other families in establishing the community of Bat Ayin, in Gush Etzion. The Rans helped found and build the unique community, which like Avri’s later communities, only uses Jewish labor and has no fence. They lived there for a while, but eventually decided to move due to differences in outlook and philosophy.
Just over ten years ago, the Rans moved to the community of Itamar, in the Shomron. Their conditions for moving there were that the community enable them to settle outside the fence and not invest in them financially. They established their first farm at the edge of the community. Veteran members of Itamar, which was surrounded by a fence and consisted of rows of caravans, thought them insane and would only visit them armed to the teeth.
Ran tries not to attack the mainstream settlement movement, “but,” he said, “it is impossible to settle the land with fences and barbed wire - and with the army watching over you. There is a public here that for years has been slaughtered - and they respond by adding more defense systems and even giving up on being responsible for their own well being. One of the central hallmarks of settlement was guarding your community. How can you just go to sleep in your bed while an entire IDF company watches over you?"
Ran is particularly irked by the practice of reinforcing car-windows and security-fences to protect Jews from stone-throwers and infiltrators. "In Itamar, five children were killed," Ran recalled. "The rabbis said at the funerals, ‘for every victim we will plant a tree, for every victim we will build a new house.’ What can you expect when a person’s response to those who throw stones at him is to build another fence.”
Ran also has harsh words for the acceptance committees in most Yesha communities. “They destroyed settlement,” he said. “They say, ‘We want communal life here, everyone needs to be religious - not just religious, but with the same kippa.’ Where were we during the Aliyah from Russia? Why didn’t we bring one million immigrants to settle here [in Yesha]? By what right does an acceptance committee say to a family that wants to move to a settlement, ‘You aren’t suitable.’ Why? Because the woman is a Freicha[partier, perhaps less concerned with laws of modesty -ed.]? So what, a Freicha is not part of the Nation of Israel?”
Soon after moving to Itamar, Ran built a chicken coop and an egg storage room and left his contracting job in Tel Aviv. He began to slowly develop his organic egg business into a profitable endeavor. Today, it is so successful that even the gigantic Tnuva corporation purchases Ran’s eggs and resells them under their own organic label.
After a year and a half on the outskirts of Itamar, during the heat of the Oslo Accords era, Ran decided to move out to a hilltop simply called “The Point,” a mile away from Itamar. It was the first outpost in a long series of them. His reputation and stories of his self-sacrifice spread. Rumors of the non-conventional settler reached far and wide and youth began to make their way to the outposts to see for themselves that Zionism was alive and well.
Members of the Yesha Council were displeased. They did not understand how someone could just get up and decide that he is going to found a community. Even Ariel Sharon visited Ran and told him, “Enough. What do you need this for? It is preventing the flow of budgetary allocations.”
Sharon Ran described what it was like when her husband left their home to capture his first hilltop. “He took a tent - actually just the lining of one - and just went to the hilltop,” said Sharona. “Our mode of communication was via a taxi radio. I would bring him food and equipment. It was a series of obstacles to get there, despite the not-so-distant location. We would spend the Sabbath there with a small generator. We began to sell our assets because we needed to fund everything on our own. We sold two houses in Jerusalem and the farm in Beit Meir. Within a year there were four families living on ‘The Point.’ "
Ran then moved to the next hilltop, Hill 851, another mile from the previous one along topographically difficult terrain. It could only be reached via tractor. He stayed there for a number of months until others joined him and settled the place. Then he continued forward.
In 1998 Avri founded G’vaot Olam, which means “The Hills of the World,” a name Sharona came up with. “We must connect the mountain communities of Samaria to the Jordan Valley,’ Avri told me,” recalls Sharona, “ ‘this is an indispensable corridor of settlement.’ ”
Now G’vaot Olam is home to animal pens, fields of organic vegetables, olive and apricot groves, a dairy, flour mill and synagogue. An efficient marketing setup brings G’vaot Olam’s goods to every natural foods store in Israel. Almost all of Ran’s children live at G’vaot Olam, including his married daughters, who all met their husbands at the farm.
The houses are well-groomed and the paths are lined with flowers. There are no locks on the doors. Instead of a fence, there is a large watch tower.
Arabs in the neighboring village of Yanoun tell all sorts of stories about Ran, claiming that he burned their generator, that he blocked their road and that he demands that they inform him of any changes in the status quo that they wish to make. Left-wing activists with the Ta’ayush organization, as well as European volunteers, have entered the village and attempted to help the villagers fight Ran's authority using the willing media.
“The left chose Yanoun in order to show the world ‘the Sheriff of the Hilltops,’ ” Sharona said, “the man who terrorizes. How many time have they opened a table in Yanoun and called Avri down to settle their internal disputes? I witnessed many such night-time phone calls. When they didn't have water we brought it for them. What the residents of Yanoun say now can fly from here to Uganda. As long as the leftists were not there, they didn’t say anything. True, there is no wimpiness here. Avri is a man, and he behaves like a man - and one who knows Ishmael and the Arabs knows that this is the language that speaks to them. That is the condition for quiet. They don’t understand how there is a Jew here that is unafraid.”
“I am, as a settler, an anomaly and exception," Ran concedes. "When I have a problem with members of a certain village, I go there and solve it with the Mukhtar, the elder of the village. Once I caught someone who came to steal from me. I brought him to the Mukhtar. They made him an ‘arrangement’ there. Not me. Afterward, he claimed that I beat him. I didn’t touch him."
Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayot is now deliberating on whether to free Ran to house arrest at the ranch of Ariel Sharon's former brother-in-arms war-hero Meir Har-Tzion.
"The story of Avri Ran is one that is indicative of the entire experience our nation is going through right now," Sharona concluded.
On the horizon lingers the reported Israeli promise to the United States that the IDF would be ordered to destroy 'unauthorized settlement outposts.' Avri does not wish to go into detail, but expresses disappointment in how the struggle against the Disengagement Plan was waged and vows that anyone, Jewish or Arab, coming to destroy his patch of the Land of Israel will not be granted a victory.
"I think that this land belongs to me," confesses the grandfather of the biblical/hippy hilltops. "It belongs to me, from where I am now able to be, all the way to where I am currently unable to be. If I could, I would make my next outpost in Jordan. It has nothing to do with the Arabs. I don't hate Arabs. Absolutely not. I am simply indifferent to them. They are not in my field of play at all. I am not G-d’s executioner. I am not a violent man, but if there is a war, I will fight it."
Some of the quotations for this article were translated from a report by NRG-Judaism after being confirmed by Sharona Ran.