GIVAT ASSAF – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry passed right by this town's entrance -- just a few dozen meters away -- while on his way to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last Thursday. We can only hope that his driver slowed down, and that one of his accompanying local diplomats showed him the gates of the “outpost” or “illegal settlement” of Givat Assaf. For this is one of those urban zones, along with Mitzpeh Lachish, Maales Rehavam and Givat Haroeh, that ignited what the diplomats qualify as a “protest” that Washington issued to Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
On May 14, the Israeli government had announced its intention to legalize these four settlements. The State Department was quick to react, declaring that this decision would ruin Kerry’s efforts to rekindle peace talks between Israel and Palestine, using words such as “contrary to Israel’s duty and engagements.”
Washington is understandably dipleased: When Barack Obama came to visit the region in late March, both sides agreed to show some restraint. That meant no more settlements for the Israelis and no further push by Mahmoud Abbas to make Palestine part of the UN.
The legalization of Givat Assaf is not the only sign of Israel’s supposed “restraint”: a week before that, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had approved the construction of 296 housing units within the Beit El settlement. In order to reach Ramallah, John Kerry’s convoy had to take Highway 60 heading north along the West Bank and then take a left towards Ramallah. The Givat Assaf settlement is located at that intersection, on a rocky hillside.
A “Glorious day”
The American Secretary of State in fact didn’t stop, and therefore missed the opportunity to meet Benny Gal, the spokesperson of this Jewish community of 25 families, all living in rustic barracks. May 14 was “a glorious day, not just for Givat Assaf but for all Israelis,” declares Gal, 32, with a big smile on his face and not a hint of doubt in his words. “We are here because this region is historically and directly linked to the Bible; Jewish people have been living here for thousands of years.”
Givat Assaf was established in May 2001, in memory of Assaf Hershkovitz, a settler from the neighboring settlement of Ofra, killed during the second Intifada. From 2004 to 2011, Israeli governments have been ordering the dismantling of illegal settlements, including Givat Assaf, all the while allowing them to repeatedly postpone the deadlines for the process to begin. The Palestinians claim that this project was established on lands belonging to the inhabitants of the nearby villages of Beitin and Burqa -- something the Israeli government partially acknowledged. Until this decision on May 14.
Benny Gal is unequivocal: “For the past 12 years, no Palestinian has claimed this land as his own, it’s not even arable," he says. "Aerial shots were taken and you could see that no one lived here.”
Givat Assaf is protected by a military outpost perched atop a hill. The settlement also has a yeshiva (religious school) and a playground. Benny Gal hopes Givat Assaft will be granted the same infrastructures and social services as the rest of the country.
Regarding his Palestinian neighbors, he doesn’t quite understand why Israel should negotiate: “What’s the point? Their whole educational system is predicated on the condition that Israel can’t be a state: they want a nation that spreads from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.”
Therein lies Kerry’s problem, this discourse is relatively the same as the one used by most of Netanyahu’s Ministers, notably two very influential ones such as Yair Lapid from the center party Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), and Naftali Bennett, from the religious nationalist party HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”).
Netanyahu can therefore say that he cannot move on subjects such as settlements, Palestinian prisoners release, 1967 border negotiations –- Abbas’ conditions to resume the political dialogue - without a majority. When he left Jerusalem on Friday, after several meetings with both head of states, John Kerry urged them to take “difficult measures,” for “in the long run, the status quo is not sustainable.”
It was a way to admit that his fourth visit within a month between the two countries once again bore little fruit, for neither parties are willing to cross their respective red lines. It is believed that the America's top diplomat will present, during the first half of June, a politico-economic initiative to try and find a solution. “I know this region well enough to know there is skepticism," said Kerry. "In some quarters there is cynicism and there are reasons for it.”