Residents of a small Judean desert community are unimpressed by the threats to destroy their homes imposed by Peace Now and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.
Maaleh Rechavam is one of six communities highlighted by the extreme left-wing Peace Now organization in a recent law suit, as an ‘unauthorized outpost’ in need of immediate destruction. The Defense Ministry intends to map out over 100 such communities over the next four months, in conjunction with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s proposed unilateral withdrawal, which calls for what resident say it the "ethnic cleansing of Jews" from the Biblical provinces of Judea and Samaria.
Funded by foreign investors including the European Union, Peace Now has been spearheading the efforts to remove Jewish residents and communities from the large Judea and Samaria regions, commonly referred to as the West Bank, for the past several years. The group was founded with the purpose of pressuring Israel to forge peace with Egypt in the late 1970's and to withdraw from the Israeli security zone established in Southern Lebanon in the early 80's.
Recently, Peace Now has been successful in efforts to coerce the Israeli government to destroy nine permanent homes in February, in the small town of Amona. They also encouraged Arabs to file suit against the Hevron Jewish community's recent purchase of the Beit Shapira building, claiming the documents proving the sale were forged.
History of the Outposts
Nearly every large, established community in Israel, and particularly in Judea and Samaria, began similarly as an outpost.
Hilltop outposts began springing up in large numbers in 1998, following then-Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon's exhortation, "Let everyone get a move on and take the hilltops! Whatever we take will be ours – and whatever we don't take will not be ours!"
An unauthorized outpost is currently defined as “any community established in Judea or Samaria after March 2001,” according to the ‘Road Map for Peace,’ submitted by the Quartet (US, Russia, UN and EU) and accepted by Israel with fourteen long-forgotten reservations. The date cited is significant, as it is the month Ariel Sharon, the man who called for the outposts' establishment, became prime minister.
The outposts were established for several reasons. They were thought of as a fitting Zionist response to the terrorist murder of civilians. At more than one cornerstone ceremony, a terror victim's bereaved sibling could be heard proclaiming that the building of Jewish homes on that parcel of the Land of Israel is much more permanent and satisfying than any form of violent revenge.
Many others who took to the hills were second-generation residents of Judea and Samaria who sought an alternative model to the bedroom commuter communities, mass-produced with the help of cheap Arab labor from nearby villages. Residents sought connection to the land, a return to Biblical and early Zionist ideals, and an escape from the bourgeois gated-community they feel many towns in Judea and Samaria have become.
Turning a Vision Into Reality
In September 2001, the founders of Maaleh Rechavam began looking for a place to establish a unique community following the lynch of two IDF reserve soldiers by an Arab mob in front of the Palestinian Authority police station in a central Ramallah square, shortly after the start of the Sept. 2001 Oslo War.
The group of committed pioneers had a vision and they approached twenty different municipalities with their proposal for the community.
"We wanted to build a place that would really bring the nation of Israel together," says Gidi (Gidon) Kelman, one of the founders. "We dreamed of starting a community that would be open to both Orthodox and secular Jews, with no limitations on acceptance due to marital status or level of education."
Finding the precise parcel of land was not simple. "We soon understood that there is no ideology of building in most places," Gidi recalls, "only of bolstering businesses." They approached Amana, the logistical branch of what was once called Gush Emunim or the Bloc of the Faithful, who established the first communities in Judea and Samaria.
They were allotted a portion of state-owned land, overlooking the Judean desert. The hilltop is located within the municipal boundaries of the town of Nokdim, home to Yisrael Beiteinu Party Chairman Avigdor Lieberman. "They planned to build a neighborhood here some time in the distant future, and so when we asked them if we could build there now, they said 'fine,' " Gidi recalls.
A central tenet of Maaleh Rechavam is Avodah Ivrit, Jewish Labor. "It is a throwback to the values of the chalutzim, the pioneers who came to Israel during the First Aliyah," Gidi says. "They believed it is good to be a boss, a foreman or a contractor, but there is an irreplaceable value to building for yourself and working the land with your own hands. It is okay to raise children with a nanny, but everybody knows it is better to raise your children yourself. The same applies to our land."
The community is often forced to defend the policy of Jewish labor, but they reject the claim of racism out of hand. "Anybody can bring an Arab friend here to visit, or even stay over, they are just not allowed to hire a non-Jew to work the land instead of them," he says.
The founders moved to the hilltop on the Sukkot Festival, building the traditional Sukkah, a temporary booth commemorating Jewish dwelling during their forty years of wanderings in the Sinai desert. The group brought jerry-cans of water, boxes of food and a ton [literally] of wood. "We started a fire and we were home," Gidi says.
The nascent community had no name, but shortly after populating the location, community founders were contacted by a representative of the family of recently assassinated Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze'evi. "We were not Gandhi people (Ze'evi's nickname, due to a supposed resemblance to the Indian pacifist) but we believed that he deserved a place named for him, so that was it. We became Maaleh Rechavam.”
From the moment they arrived on the barren hilltop and began rendering it inhabitable, the residents felt they were on the road to becoming a full-fledged government-authorized village.
The Israeli Ministry of Housing invested 700,000 shekels (more than $150,000) in paving the a road, formerly a goat-path leading to the community, and the IDF sent soldiers to assist residents in guard-duty. "Our own guard-duty we could handle," Gidi said, "but the army was very pleased with the spot, since it provides security from the east for the three adjacent, established Jewish communities of Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad, as well as securing the hiking path from Herodion to the Dead Sea."
The community allotted the soldiers stationed there with a comfortable caravan at their own expense and provides them with free water and electricity.
A noteworthy aspect of the community is the founder’s decision to forego the typical barbed-wire fences that surround most communities in Judea and Samaria, and within the Green Line as well. "There is no reason to ruin nature with a fence," says Gidi, who, among other things, trains first-response teams in counter-terrorist tactics. "We have no desire to live in ghettos again. And since we are not threatening any of our [Arab] neighbors, there is no reason for them to threaten us."
Members of the community's security team have also helped locate hikers lost in the desert between them and the Dead Sea. Parks Authority trail markers can be seen leading in the direction of the Dead Sea as well.
Overlooking Maaleh Rechavam is the flat-topped Herodion Fortress, built by King Herod and used as a last stand against the Roman's by Bar Kochba's rebels over 2,100 years ago.
Before the mountain fortress was built, the region was home to the prophet-shepherd Amos, whose prophesied ominously: "So said the L-rd, 'For three transgressions of Gaza I have looked away, but for four I will not pardon them… " and warned, "the rider of the horse will not save his soul ."
"Prophets would always go out to the desert," Gidi explains. "In the desert, it is just you, the desert and G-d. Your eyes can't be distracted and if you've got issues with G-d, they get dealt with."
Ingathering of the Exiles
Maaleh Rechavam is home to 23 people, ages 21 to 35 (as well as four children) and six more are supposed to move in this month. Residents hail from all regions of Israel, and from as far away as the Czech Republic and Mexico.
About a third of the community engages in agricultural projects in the area, which includes farming 42 dunams of olive groves and vineyards. There is also a tropical fish farm. The other residents work in varied fields. One runs a messenger service in Jerusalem, another works in a high-tech firm in Yavneh and several others are still studying in universities.
Gidi is a master carpenter with a workshop located in nearby Tekoa, and sells many of his creations online at gidiwood.com.
For one resident, this desert is the last stop on her long journey to Judaism and Israel. Yael, originally from the Czech Republic, converted to Judaism and searched far and wide for a place that she believed embodied a holistic Jewish lifestyle following her extensive textual study of the Torah.
Yael called Maaleh Rechavam one day, and in her Czech accent and perfect Hebrew told residents that she wanted to visit. She immediately fell in love with the community. And even though there was no room available, she declared she was willing to live in a tent if necessary.
Yael now lives in a caravan on the edge of the community surrounded by a large stone courtyard she built by hand. She serves in the IDF as a member of a special bomb-sniffing-dog unit.
The structures around the hilltop are spread out much more than on most hilltop communities – some of which are temporary satellite neighborhoods of their nearby mother communities. The caravans, many of them with built-on additions, or covered in stone to create permanent structure, were all purchased by Maaleh Rechavam rather than rented from one of the settlement organizations.
"We mainly bought ones that were going to be throw away," Gidi explains. "The good thing about them is that we never got comfortable in the caravans like some other places, and it drove us to build much faster."
Several sturdy structures stand on the once-barren hilltop, including a house, built by the whole community together, that is now home to a young couple. The house was painted bright pink, "thanks to a colorblind idiot," Gidi jokes, later admitting he chose the color and painted it himself.
Though members of Peace Now's Settlement Watch team have often tried to prevent them from building, Gidi says they have only succeeded in breeding hatred in the area, not hindering construction. "They have harassed us since we came here," Gidi says. "They come here, enter the community, try to provoke us so they will be able to file police complaints, encourage the Arabs to complain about us and even try to incite the soldiers against us."
"They have a problem with Jews living where they don't want them to live and have a serious problem with ideology that involves land," Gidi says. "But I think their main issue is that they are afraid, because we are fulfilling [first Israeli prime minister David] Ben-Gurion's dream, and it is supposed to be they who are doing it."
Fulfilling the 'Old Man's' Dream
Gidi waxes nostalgic about the Old Man, as Ben-Gurion was known in his time. "Sde Boker (where Ben-Gurion lived the latter part of his life) was never authorized," Gidi says. "Ben-Gurion passed it one day in the 50’s while driving with his whole convoy. He drove past and saw actual cowboys and girls living out in the middle of the desert. 'What are you doing here?' he asked them. 'I didn't even know this place existed.' They told him, 'We fought in the war, we heard you wanted the desert to be settled, and we moved here.'
"Ben Gurion eventually convinced them to let him join their kibbutz even though he was much older. He retired from politics, moved down there and hosted heads of state in his caravan in that isolated settlement outpost."
"There is plenty bad to say about Ben Gurion as well, Gidi adds, "but he saw the ingathering of the Jews would have to result in the spreading out of settlement across the land, not just crowding together on the coastal plain. There is no more room for Jews in Tel Aviv. They need to be scattered around the land a little bit – wherever they go, the desert will indeed bloom."
"When we arrived, there was not a single bird or butterfly," remembers Gidi, "after we planted over 1,000 trees, all that changed." Indeed, birds can be heard chirping and butterflies seen fluttering all across the hilltop and its surrounding valleys as well.
Although the government has never destroyed anything built at Maaleh Rechavam, demolition orders have been taped to nearly everything residents have built, and a general demolition order calls for the destruction and uprooting of everything inside the borders of the community. That order, however, expires at the end of May, which is the reason Peace Now is seeking to have it acted upon right away.
Residents are uncertain that they will remain in their homes by next year. They took part in the struggle against the withdrawal from Gaza and removal of Jews from their homes there and in northern Samaria and have little hope in politicians coming to their rescue. One thing they refuse to do, however, is stop building or leave their homes without a fight.
"If you are ambushed by a rapist, you have two choices, to be passive or take out two of his eyes," Gidi says. "Here in Maaleh Rechavam, we will put up a fight. No matter how clear it is that we will lose. We refuse to go around the rest of our lives not being certain that we did everything we could to build and convey this dream of ours to our nation."
Meanwhile, the final words of Amos's prophecy were read in Maaleh Rechavam's Song of David Synagogue last week as the Haftorah, the portion of the Prophets read after each weeks Torah portion.
Right after G-d's promise to restore the fallen sukkah of King David is conveyed by Amos, the book ends with a promise residents pray refers to them: "I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild desolate cities and settle them; they will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will cultivate gardens and eat their fruits. I will plant them upon their land and they will never again be uprooted from their land that I have given them, said HaShem, your G-d."
For more information about Maaleh Rechavam, or to offer assistance, email:MoriaHalamish@intermail.co.il
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)