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An unused waste treatment plant in the Israeli settlement of Ofra in the West Bank has come to symbolize the reality of the Middle East's most intractable conflict: It's in the crapper.
OFRA — In a metaphor its opponents may relish, the Israeli settlement movement finds itself mired in a sewer.
For 30 years, the settlement of Ofra, located about 40 minutes north of Jerusalem and about 15 minutes from Ramallah, has disposed of its raw sewage in the local valley, soiling pristine streams and damaging the nearby mountain aquifer.
Like almost everything else in the Levantine Wild West that is the West Bank of the Jordan River, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, the state of affairs regarding Ofra's human waste disposal careens dangerously between tragedy and farce.
The residents of Ofra possess a state-of-the-art waste purification plant; they just can't use it. No one can use it. It lies glimmering and white and locked up in the verdant riverbed just beneath Ofra, while the unpleasant odors of untreated raw sewage waft incongruously up toward the populated hills.
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Meir Nachliel, the ruggedly handsome head of Ofra's town council, stands on one of the cliffs above it and points at the gleaming structure in sadness. Not only can his town of 3,500 not benefit from the plant's use but, he explains, the same predicament now befalls the two neighboring Arab villages that he agreed to hook up to the new sewage system.
The plant is padlocked because it is disputed — by the very Palestinians who Nachliel claims would benefit from its operation. Ofra, it appears, or the Binyamin Regional Council, of which it is a part, built the plant on Palestinian-owned land, and may not have asked for permission.
Israel police announced on Tuesday that documents show a contractor was given permission to build the project, which was partially built using state funds, in contravention of a stop-work order issued by a different branch of the same government. Now, yet another branch of the Israeli government is investigating.
The matter, legally and otherwise, remains in the crapper, with Jews and Arabs destroying the environment they unhappily share, the beautiful but oddly redolent hills rising in silent testimony to the absurdity.
The story of the rogue waste treatment plant may be an inevitable consequence of the rascally nature of the Ofra settlement from its inception, in 1975, when it was surreptitiously established by a group of young men hired to work at a local military base. They requested permission to sleep nearby, received it, and shortly thereafter brought caravans and pronounced the establishment of their new settlement by planting an Israeli flag on the ground.
Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was not impressed by their chutzpah and demanded the evacuation of the colony. But Defense Minister Shimon Peres supported their initiative and, when the right-wing Likud party won the general election in 1977, the town received retroactive recognition.
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Over the years, the method of audaciously imposing a new reality on the ground and hoping for subsequent political recognition seems to have become a defining characteristic of the settler movement. And the various governments that have come and gone since 1967 seem to be unified only by their disjointed responses to the determined settlers.
A nostalgic, admiring smile paints its way across Gershom Herbst's face as he recounts the story of Ofra's lawless founding. He lifts his shoulders and grins — as if knowing that he shouldn't feel this way but can't help himself — when expressing his esteem, if not outright envy, for the "hilltop youths" who in these fraught days occasionally take over a windswept West Bank summit and pronounce it a new settlement.
"No, it doesn't reflect badly on us," he says, answering the question of the potential damage, from a public relations point of view, that the anarchic acts of possession may bring to the cause of more established settlements.
"We started out in the same way. It is all part of the same thing," said Herbst, a pleasant, soft-spoken father of five.
The current thing vexing people in the vicinity of Ofra — and in the ministerial halls of Jerusalem — is the small Ulpana neighborhood located in the nearby settlement of Beit El, which the Israeli Supreme Court ruled was built on land owned by a Palestinian in possession of a valid title deed.
From one point of view, the decision ordering the immediate evacuation of the five buildings constituting the disputed neighborhood would seem to strengthen the hand of the settlement movement as a whole, determining that only land where private Palestinian ownership can be proven must be returned to its rightful proprietor.
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But the residents of Beit El have taken the decision as a stab to the heart, and have organized marches to Jerusalem and attacks on defense ministry contractors.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for his part, now finds himself in exactly the kind of bind he wished to avoid: between the Supreme Court and his own right-wing flank.
Asked about the Ulpana neighborhood, Herbst takes on a dreamy demeanor, and says, with absolute sincerity, "I understand he has a deed. But the thing is, I feel I have a more important deed, an older deed, to the same land." He is referring to the deed religious West Bank settlers believe God gave them to the entire Land of Israel.
The West Bank of the settlers has become, in many ways, an alternate universe, in which alternate laws exist, and the tension between that world and the other, in which a Supreme Court issues terrestrial rulings that must be enforced, is bringing Israel's ruling party close to a breaking point.
Following the Supreme Court decision, the "Feiglins," as the extreme right-wing faction within the ruling Likud party is called, in honor of its leader, Moshe Feiglin, presented a bill in the Israeli parliament that would have annulled the verdict and granted de facto recognition to all new settlement construction.
A bit of magical thinking, many thought, but the measure was defeated only when Netanyahu threatened to fire any minister who voted to approve the law.
Netanyahu attempted to pacify the Feiglins, Israel’s version of the Tea Party, by promising to build 300 new West Bank housing units to replace the five soon-to-be abandoned buildings. But even this has not bought him a quiet summer.
"In the end, this was a big win for the right," said Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political science professor and expert on Israeli political parties. "The ministers are simply terrified of the Feiglins. They have enough clout within the Likud party pretty much to determine who can win reelection, so they are afraid of [Feiglin]."
"The Likud is in a very good place in terms of next year's elections," Rahat said, pointing to recent national polls showing Netanyahu easily winning reelection. "The only real danger they face is the Trojan horse, a right-wing attack that can come and take them from within."
"There are disagreements in every democratic party," said Ofir Akunis, a Likud member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. "The supremacy of the rule of law is one of the most important tenets of the Likud platform and we respect the Supreme Court's decision. I hope the Supreme Court also respects the Knesset, whose role it is to legislate, and the government, whose role it is to implement laws, as in every democracy with a separation of powers."
Meanwhile, the story repeats itself on an endless loop.
Meir Nachliel, of the Ofra town council, proudly but dejectedly shows visitors a cluster of buildings known as the "temporary settlement" neighborhood, in the heart of Ofra. He says he paid a Palestinian to buy the land, though, like Herbst, he believes it is his to begin with. The buildings were constructed with some state support. Yet the state has now filed a Supreme Court appeal against the neighborhood, for violation of building regulations.