Israel's illegal outpost

The extremist children of the settlements who have turned their backs on what they regard as their p

"It is not right to hide behind fences, to live in ghettoes. This land belongs to the Jewish people and we must claim it proudly and without fear," says 17-year-old Lital, enjoying the shade of an ancient olive tree in the West Bank with her teenage friends. In long flowing skirts, they gently strum guitars and play hand-carved flutes, a picture of back-to-nature wholesomeness.

In the type of violation of international law that the UN's Middle East envoy has urged the incoming Israeli prime minister Tzipi Livni to address, Lital lives deep in the West Bank next to the Palestinian city of Ramallah. But unlike most of Israel's half a million other settlers, she and her friends scorn the protection afforded Israel's official colonies: razor-wire fences, watchtowers and patrols of armed soldiers.

Their small camp - two buildings, one for boys, the other for girls - is made of tin sheeting, spare bits of plywood and thick cardboard. Lital belongs to a group known as the "hilltop youth", extremist children of the settlements who have turned their backs on what they regard as their parents' caution. Even by the standards of the settlers, theirs is a twilight world of illegality, which explains Lital's reluctance to provide a last name or allow her photograph to be taken.

The hilltop youth were the foot soldiers who fought police at road junctions across Israel to block the disengagement from Gaza. Increasingly they refuse to identify with the state or obey its laws. Their key battleground is safeguarding and expanding what Israelis refer to as the "illegal outposts", unauthorised extensions of the main settlements.

Today there are 150 official settlements, and nearly as many outposts dotted across the West Bank. Typically an outpost starts as a huddle of caravans high on a hilltop. A road is built to connect it to other settlements, and water, electricity and schools soon follow. In the past it has been only a matter of time before an "illegal outpost" becomes an established settlement.

But that changed after 2003, when the US initiated the Road Map, President Bush's plan to advance a Palestinian state. As part of the first stage Israel is expected to dismantle most of the outposts, a requirement it has failed so far to meet. Under increasing pressure from the Americans, however, the Israeli government finally promised this month to destroy Migron, the largest of the outposts and one it has admitted was built on private Palestinian land. That decision brought Lital and her friends, some as young as 12, to Migron's defence.

Located next to Ramallah, the West Bank's unofficial capital, Migron is considered to be of "strategic value" by Daniella Weiss, a former mayor of the religious settlement of Kedumim, near Nablus, and leader of the most extreme wing of West Bank settlers. She points out that it offers a bird's-eye view of Route 60, the main Palestinian thoroughfare connecting Jerusalem with Jenin in the northern West Bank.

Despite its illegality, Migron has received at least $4m in subsidies from the Israeli government since its founding six years ago. It now consists of 45 Orthodox religious families, as well as parks, playgrounds, a kindergarten and a synagogue, in addition to the hilltop youth congregating on its fringes.

But rather than accept Migron's demise, the youngsters have been expanding it, building their new outpost outside its boundaries, further down the hillside and closer to the neighbouring Palestinian village of Mukhmas.

"In time," says Alex Ostrovsky, at 22 in effect the guardian of Migron's hilltop youth, "our outpost will become established too." He should know: he helped found Migron when he was 15.

Is he afraid to live outside the protection of Migron? "The Arabs are more afraid of us than we are of them," he says. "They don't dare cross the road that separates us."

Lital calls the inhabitants of Migron "weak". "They are not ready to fight," she adds. "This place belongs not just to the people of Migron but to the whole Jewish people. We must live everywhere in the Land of Israel."

Are her parents worried for her safety? "They live in a religious settlement and fully support me. All of the country started this way. Our parents came here with nothing from all over the world and built our nation. We are only following in their footsteps."