|Courage and Determination|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Six months after the forced expulsion of thousands of Israelis from their homes on Jewish land in Gaza, we managed to obtain an interview with one of the main leaders of the movement to settle Judea, Samaria and Gaza, ZEEV CHEVER, known in Israel by the nickname “Zambich”. For over twenty years it has been he who has organized and supervised the building program for homes in Judea, Samaria and Gush Katif. He has thus been directly involved in settling over 250,000 throughout these regions. All of this has taken through a company called Amana, whose work covers the development of homes and roads in Judea and Samaria.
“Zambich” is one of those men who prefers action to talk. He does not take part in politics, but rather builds and develops Jewish towns, in short he creates facts on the ground. He is discrete and efficient and never gives interviews (save once to Shalom, Vol. 29 and once to the daily Haaretz), because he works relentlessly at his mission, to people as quickly as possible the lands of Israel. The traumatizing experience of the destruction of Gush Katif confirmed what he knew already, that the facts he is establishing on the ground could only be overturned through a policy of Israeli weakness. So he has to increase as fast as possible the number of Jewish homes throughout Judea and Samaria, while awaiting the opportunity to rebuild Gush Katif. He knows that hot on his heels is a destructive political process motored by the illusion that the abandonment of Israel’s lands to the Arabs will lead to a negotiated and permanent peace.
Six months ago the whole world witnessed the expulsion of the Jews of Gaza, the destruction of their homes by bulldozers of the Israeli army and the putting to the torch of the synagogues by the Arabs. So your construction and development work over many years was reduced to dust in no time. Have you recovered from the shock and how do you assess the current situation?
As in every abrupt process of mourning, we are still very much stricken by what occurred, we have not totally recovered from the trauma, but we have got back our spirits and we are in the process of regrouping. It must be clearly understood that what happened in Gush Katif went far beyond the simple destruction of homes and individual lives; Ariel Sharon demolished the entire political consensus in place for over thirty years. Almost from Menachem Begin coming to power, among Israel’s political class and among a large proportion of the Knesset there was a lot of support for the program to people Judea, Samaria and Gaza. Politically, we are in a very dangerous new situation, caused by the precedent created, what was known as disengagement. We are now regrouping our forces and studying various actions so that the destruction of Gush Katif and three settlements in Northern Samaria remains an isolated act, and that this sort of calamity never happens again. It must be understood that the destruction of our political base and the demolitions in Gush Katif did not happen from one day to another. It was the culmination of a policy that was implemented gradually but was impossible to stop. Today we do not have the time to lament the past. We are faced with a new challenge. What effectively happened was that Israelis saw that we could be expelled and could have unprecedented acts of violence inflicted on us, without the country or daily life being affected. The first thing we must do is change this attitude and regain public support, which will inevitably be followed by support from members of the Knesset. It’s not easy but it’s do-able. So in addition to the constant financial, physical and personal efforts, today we have to get down to this new task. We cannot afford the luxury of losing public support forever, because such a loss would provide the new government of Israel with the legitimacy to continue destroying the movement to settle Judea and Samaria.
On of the main elements of Kadima’s platform is indeed the wish to demolish more Jewish settlements, to expel more Jews from their homes, in a nutshell to carry out more unilateral withdrawals. What will you do if such a policy is indeed implemented?
It is well known that during electoral campaigns, parties and politicians always try to put their best face forward and to promise things they do not feel obliged to keep the day after the elections. In this case we have the advantage that already today we know with whom we are dealing and what awaits us. So we can prepare to fight these plans.
In Gush Katif you did everything to avoid blood being spilled. At Amona Olmert’s police used unbelievable violence, so much so that the Knesset set up a commission of inquiry. Today you know the price that will be paid if you oppose expulsions peacefully. When you talk of “fighting” these developments, do you believe it will end in acts of violence?
I have never thought that violence is a solution. If regrettably the Israeli people and the Knesset must adopt a plan of unilateral withdrawal in Judea and Samaria that again involves the expulsion of inhabitants, we will fight it with peaceful means, civil disobedience, demonstrations etc, but we will not start a civil war and we will not commit acts of violence against the Israeli army.
You mentioned the shock you lived through. What is the current position of the youth? Is there a tendency to give up the struggle for the cause, or on the contrary have you noted increased motivation and determination to increase the population of Judea and Samaria?
As in every society that has undergone a trauma, we are in the midst of a debate and we hear every sort of opinion, from recommending violence to giving up without a fight. I will not hide from you that a part of our youth was very disturbed by what happened, part was overwhelmed and yet a third part is licking its wounds in a more combative spirit. As leaders, one of our duties is to point out the right path. By that I understand that we should act firmly and with determination, without giving in to the idea of violence and of course without giving in to defeatism. That’s not so easy because time is pressing, and it is not impossible that in the months following the elections some ill-fated decisions will be taken. Moreover, we are not working for the short-term. We must do everything to be able to continue our work of construction and development, which involves long-term planning, in terms of building, increasing the population, developing the road infrastructure and industry in these areas.
Under such conditions, how do you see the future?
We must discriminate between what is heard in the media and what is happening on the ground. We know that overall the press is hostile. I personally have many direct contacts with all layers and tendencies within the population and I am pleased to state that we are better appreciated than it would appear from reading the newspapers. So we therefore have the challenge of transforming this capital of fellow feeling into concrete acts of support. It’s true that until now we have not made sufficient efforts in this direction. This is above all because our priority has been to develop construction. We also suffered from the illusion that facts on the ground would speak for themselves and that there was no need to add the effort of persuasion. I recall that when we started we used to say, “When there will be 50,000 inhabitants in Judea and Samaria everyone will understand the message and we will have won the fight”. But we quickly learnt that such was not the case, not when we were 50,000, nor when we passed the 100,000 mark and even less so when we reached 200,000. Today, even though we have gone beyond a quarter of a million, we realize that our task of convincing people has only begun. As I said, we enjoy a certain amount of sympathy, but I often hear it said, “We feel very friendly disposed towards you, but the realities of life, of politics and on the ground do not let us support you. Be realistic!” We have been realists for many years, and we know that the security situation of the entire country can only be strengthened through a major Jewish presence throughout Judea and Samaria, including in the Jordan Valley. It is accordingly our duty to know how to get over the message so that it will be understood, accepted and supported politically, financially and intellectually. In terms of the future, we believe that a reasonable increase in the population would be around 6% annually, with our target to go over half a million within the next fifteen years. It has to be understood that today as yesterday, even though we have taken a terrible blow, we are in no way defeatist, we do not believe that we are at the start of a process of disintegration, notwithstanding everything that happened in Gush Katif. Today more than ever we are doing everything to continue to grow, to benefit from a major boom and transform yesterday’s defeat into tomorrow’s success. Our capacity for hard work and our determination have been in no way curtailed.
Recently we visited the Jewish refugees in their own country, those expelled from Gush Katif. We found out that the government aid to which they are entitled is very limited. Does your organization help them?
We provide support in everything to do with relocating them and building new homes. We helped them set up the City of Faith and are working alongside the former residents of Atzmona in building Shomriyah. We are also working on behalf of people who came from Moshav Katif, Tel Katifa, Kfar Darom and others, communities that decided to remain together and to rebuild their lives together in a new place in Israel. I do not wish to give the impression that the leadership of these places does not know what to do, but it is in a difficult situation and some help or a bit of advice can never do any harm. As of today 150 families are still confined to hotel rooms, eight months after the expulsion. The good news is that one former Gush Katif community, the village of Shirat Hayam, made up of 60 families, is going to set up in the northern Jordan Valley, and that a part of Netzarim, some 30 families, are organizing themselves in Ariel. To this can be added a large number of families that have decided individually to go live somewhere in Judea, Samaria or even on the Golan.
Over two years ago Israel got down to the task of building the security barrier. This is passing by Judea and Samaria, almost along the old 1967 border. In your opinion, what will happen to the settlements that find themselves on the other side of the barrier?
Most of the towns and villages in the area are located to the east of the barrier, contrary to what was announced when this program was started, when everyone said there would be just three or four small villages that would be affected. You should bear in mind that for years Ariel Sharon was opposed to the construction of this barrier He repeated to anyone who would listen that it served no useful purpose and that it definitely did not constitute any form of protection against terrorism. In the end, giving in to popular and media pressure, he started building it. Its original route has already been altered several times by the Supreme Court, and today it runs almost along the 1967 border. In my opinion, the barrier and all the related problems were planned without the slightest long-term forethought; the idea was to sort things out as they cropped up. In practical terms, nothing was planned for the wellbeing of the settlements to the east of the barrier. Having said that, since 1988 over 150 military control points have been set up between Judea, Samaria and pre-1967 Israel. The barrier just connects them together. For us this is in no way the line of a frontier intended to mark the limits of Israel or of a hypothetical Palestinian state. That’s why the barrier’s existence is in no way hindering our settlement activity. We are continuing to build houses and to move in families throughout Judea and Samaria, and we feel in no way limited by the presence of the barrier, whose usefulness in security matters has not been proven. The fact is that Jewish life is continuing to flourish on both sides of the line, as though it did not exist. For us this barrier has no more importance than the wire fence around a school that is in any case guarded by a watchman. I am not very worried by the barrier, and for the time being it is only interfering with my work in one way, by extending the waiting time at the control points.
For several years there has been a project to build roads so that the Arabs can travel freely between the towns of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you think this project will impact on the Jewish population of the region and the development of settlements?
This idea is part of a thinking that will lead in the final analysis to a total separation between Arabs and Jews. It is clear that this plan can in no way be carried out at the expense of the Jewish population, which one way or another will be penalized by these roads that are reserved for the exclusive use of the Arabs. Further, bearing in mind the topography of the region, this will involve the construction of tunnels and bridges, which, whatever happens, will have to be controlled. So the program is very complex and expensive, and I don’t think it can be carried out quickly.
What today is your biggest challenge?
There are many, but I think the biggest is to avoid letting our people become demoralized. The trauma is not over. Many who were expelled from their homes are still living hotels and caravans. These people are profoundly scarred, they talk among themselves and share their despondency. There are many of them who since the Gush Katif expulsions think that anything and everything can happen to them. Yet this is wrong and we have to help people shake it off. We are doing everything to get them back to work so that they can help us again build and develop these areas whose growth was conferred upon us.
Among the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria, many of whom are clearly demoralized, do you think there is a trend to lose interest in the country in general and in the army in particular?
First of all, you should know that in combat units the young people from our circles are very numerous. There is indeed among us a trend, albeit a minority, but which a certain number of rabbis support, that wants us to “disengage from the State”. In practical terms, this means that given what happened in Gush Katif last summer, it is no longer necessary to make efforts for the country, no longer necessary to enlist in the army’s elite units, no need to be a leader in civil life, studies etc. In my opinion, this is a serious error and I am doing everything I can to end such ideas or trends. I also believe that this type of thinking is harmful to our cause.
I presume that during the election campaign you were in contact with most of the candidates, especially from the right. Did any of them offer to include within their platform the idea of a return in due course to Gush Katif with a view to rebuilding the 17 destroyed Jewish communities?
Certainly, the right-wing national camp, the National Union, talks about it. However, recently, when the first Kassams started falling close to Ashkelon, several Likud politicians have brought up the idea of in the first instance sending the army back into Gush Katif. So this is not something that is completely absent from the debate, though our return to those places is not scheduled for the near future.
To end, a personal question. You have devoted a large part of your life to the building up and development of the West Bank and Gaza. Now last year you were so to speak betrayed and your work of many years was partially reduced to dust. In your shoes someone else would have given up. Yet you are full of positive and constructive ideas, full of plans for the future. From where do you draw your optimism?
I do not believe that the construction work of thirty years can be wiped out, even though last year part certainly was. What’s more, I believe that everything that is undertaken with sincerity, determination and a commitment unencumbered by time limits or fatigue, will in the end always bear fruit. If it is not right now, it will be in the long-term. My entire experience has shown that this idea is right and will prevail with time. We have no right to throw in the towel, even if we have been seriously thwarted or are a bit tired. I would have had good reason to disconcerted or even stunned, when Ariel Sharon, who had won the Intifada war against the Arabs, then offered them Gush Katif on a plate. There was no reason to do it and he got nothing in exchange, neither from the Americans nor the Arabs. At the time I was rattled, but not enough to abandon my mission to build and develop the Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria. As to my optimism, I have pleasure from the facts on the ground, even when they seem insignificant. Firstly, following the evacuations, not a single family left Judea and Samaria, despite the risk of possibly being expelled in the longer or shorter term. Our population is continuously increasing. What’s more, at the beginning of March ten French families planning to settle in Ofra in Samaria bought houses even though they are still only on the drawing board. It’s that sort of small sign that give me terrific encouragement.
A meeting with “Zambich” cannot leave anyone indifferent. His strong personality, his determination and courage are exemplary. He incarnates the true Israeli, the one we love, a pioneer, strong, combative, certain of being right, devoted to Israel and the Jewish people, in a word, a man who has already earned his place among the great leaders of the Jewish State.