Sunday, March 25, 2012

One Year After the Fogel Family Murders, the Community Rebuilds

One Year After the Fogel Family Murders, the Community Rebuilds

By Stella Paul

It takes more than a murderer's knife to kill the Jewish spirit.  One year after five members of the Fogel family were brutally stabbed to death, the residents of their small farming community in the West Bank dedicated a new religious school in their honor.

Itamar, a quiet hilltop town surrounded by hostile Arab villages, has earned a tragic distinction as "the most wounded community."  Since its founding in 1984, a series of terror attacks has killed twenty-two people (including nine children) in a town of just 200 families. Yet after each massacre, the people of Itamar rebuild and replant, determined to sink deeper roots into their patch of the ancient Biblical soil of Samaria.  Since the Fogel murders, at least twelve new families have moved to Itamar.

On a recent rainy day, I visited Itamar, beginning by paying my respects at the Fogel family home.


A string of Israeli flags flapped in the wind, left over from the ceremony a few days before in which a scribe had finished writing a Torah scroll in the family living room.   Gazing at this modest concrete box, I found it impossible to imagine the chaotic scenes that had unfolded on March 11, 2011. On that horrific Sabbath night, two Palestinian cousins from the neighboring town of Awarta had broken in and stabbed to death Rabbi Ehud (Udi) Fogel, 36, his wife Ruti, 35, and their children, Yoav, 11, Elad, four, and Hadas, a three-month-old baby girl who was butchered in her crib.

"Every time the Arabs try to frighten us, we see it as an opportunity to strengthen the community," my guide, Oshri, told me. "What people don't understand is that if we go, Tel Aviv goes." Oshri explained that the topography of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) consists of a vast mountain range, dominating the narrow, low plains of Tel Aviv.  If the Palestinian Authority controlled the mountain, they could send missiles into the major population centers of Israel and barrage its economic zones and airport. 

Ruti and Udi Fogel understood the importance of holding this land, which is why they chose to relocate here after the Israeli government evicted them from their home in Gush Katif. A bloc of seventeen flourishing agricultural settlements in the Gaza Strip, Gush Katif was dismantled by the Israeli government in August, 2005, and its 8,600 residents forced out, in accordance with Israel's policy of unilateral disengagement from Gaza.  Today, in the land where settlers once grew huge harvests of organic vegetables, a hellfire of rockets is now fired at southern Israel.  In early March, one million Israelis were forced into bomb shelters and the holiday of Purim was canceled.

Oshri drives me to Mishkan Ehud, "The House of Ehud," a new study center named for Ehud Fogel, rising above the temporary trailers that housed it.

"Ehud was the rabbi of one of the grades in the religious school," Oshri explained.  "After the murders, his parents decided to memorialize him by building a new home for the school, which now meets in trailers. The community raised the money and got the building ready in time for the dedication ceremony last week on the first yahrzeit (anniversary) of their deaths."

Inside the building, where workers are putting the finishing touches on the interior, Oshri introduced me to Assaf Kidron, 35, the soft-spoken artist who created the school's new 15-ton holy ark out of local stones. 

When I asked him to explain his artistic concept, he closed his eyes, concentrating to precisely state his thoughts, which Oshri translated. "This monument is built entirely from stones exposed thousands of years on the ground in the hilltops of the Holy Land. Above these stones happened the stories of the Bible.  Hundreds of students will come here to learn the Bible.  The stones will hear their voices and remember, and the stones will share all they felt and the history of what happened here in the heartland of the Holy Land of Israel."

As Assaf talked, I thought of the neighboring town of Awarta, from which the Fogels' murderers came.  Tradition claims that Awarta is the burial place of Itamar, the son of the high priest Aaron, for whom the town of Itamar is named.

Living in Itamar demands courage because the encirclement is palpable. Driving out of Itamar, we passed the entrance to Nablus, a major Palestinian city. Oshri translated the sign at the entry point: "Ahead of you lies a Zone A, administered by the Palestinian Authority.  It is forbidden for Israelis to enter. You risk your life if you break this law."

I thought ruefully of the conference underway that day at Harvard, a bilious hatefest entitled "Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution," advocating for the end of the Jewish State for its supposed sin of apartheid. Yet I'd seen no signs anywhere in Israel forbidding entry to Palestinians.  In fact, my day had started at Ariel, a major Israeli settlement in the West Bank, where 12,000 students attend Ariel University Center of Samaria, including 3,000 Arabs.

I asked Oshri about "Zone A" and the whole confusing business of who controls what. He explained that the Oslo Accords in 1993 divided the West Bank into Zones A, B and C.  While Israel maintains control of all roads, which are classified as Zone C, the Palestinian Authority rules over Zones A and B, operating its own educational, legal, medical and social welfare systems. In a Zone A, such as Nablus, the Palestinian Authority also controls security.  More than 95% of the Arab population in the West Bank now lives under Palestinian Authority rule.

Driving through the Arab village of Chawara, I saw more evidence of the Palestinian Authority's autonomy: the main street was decorated with posters commemorating three terrorist "martyrs."
Oshri took me to Havat Gilad, a tiny pioneering outpost whose story is intimately entwined with the town of Itamar.  24 families and 15 single men live on this private land owned by Moshe Zar, whose son Gilad was a founder of Itamar. Gilad Zar served as a chief security officer for the region, dying in a hail of over 40 bullets shot by Palestinian terrorists, leaving a widow and eight children. His father founded the community in his memory.

One of Rachel Shabo's surviving sons helped to build Havat Gilad. A resident of Itamar, Rachel Shabo, 40, was murdered in her home in 2002, along with three of her children. Her surviving family carries on in her honor: her son Asael, who was 10 when his leg was shot off in the attack, is now one of the best disabled swimmers in the world, winning gold medals for Israel.

I joined Ilana and Yehuda Shimon in the trailer they share with their seven children.  Over a delicious chicken lunch, Ilana explained that Israeli officials have refused to issue building permits to Havat Gilad, so they can't connect to the water or electrical infrastructure. The Shomron Regional Council regularly brings them tankers of water, and supplies generators, which cost 60,000 shekels a month to fuel.

"Last Tuesday, some Arabs came from a nearby village and completely burned a trailer of someone living here, " Ilana said.  "The security dog was burned to death.  We don't have a fence and they come in broad daylight when everybody is out working or studying."

Despite the difficulties, Ilana said the community's spirits were good. "We came here six years ago after the settlers were evicted from Gush Katif.  We decided to move to a community that needs us.  We want to live like the Zionist pioneers. We have to hold this land."

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