I’m now based in East Jerusalem as a freelance journalist and I was thrilled to recently secure the cover story in Newsweek Middle East (15 June edition) on Israel’s settler movement (+ here are my photos from the assignment):
Har Bracha vineyard is a Jewish business situated near Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Established in 2004, its location offers spectacular views. With an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) jeep parked outside, owner Nir Lavi recently told me that he was proud of his livelihood cultivating grapes, because it proved that anti-Semitism would always fail.
“European anti-Semitism never dies,” he said. “Boycotts against us [Israel] show this.” He sells most of his products to Israelis and Jewish communities in the United States, “who have Shomron [greater Israel] in their hearts.” In response to growing global and local moves to boycott products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, Lavi opened a shop in Tel Aviv this year. He aimed to convince Israelis that the West Bank was a place of safety and legitimacy.
Last week marked the 49th year of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. In 1967 Israel seized what is now termed the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in an act of war. Soon after this war, illegal settlements—Israeli communities built on occupied ground—began to take shape, and some 30 settlements were established between 1967 and 1977, home to roughly 5000 settlers. During this period, settlements were mostly in the Jordan Valley and it wasn’t until the late 1970s, under a more right-wing Israeli government, that they began to expand in the West Bank. Now, nearly 700,000 settlers live throughout the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
On a daily basis, and in contravention of international law, Israel confiscates land and constructs settlements that run deep into Palestinian territory. Worse still, Israel demolishes Palestinian homes and other civilian structures, forcibly displaces and transfers Palestinian civilians and exploits the natural resources of the Palestinian land. Despite the widespread condemnations and calls for cessation, Israel continues its actions with impunity. The persistent confiscation of land, water, and other natural resources also violates The Hague Regulations of 1907, which prohibit an occupying power from expropriating the resources of occupied territory for its own benefit.
Earlier this year, U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro sparked unease when he noted that Israeli settlements have expanded; Israeli vigilantes murder Palestinians without fear of investigation or reprisal; and, in the occupied, Palestinian areas, Israelis enjoy civilian legal protections while Palestinians live under military rule.
Lavi told U.S. Jewish publication, The Algemeiner, in January that the aim of his shop was, “to show sympathy and patriotism at this time, and to connect to our fellow Israelis. We don’t mind where they come from, what their background is, or what’s their political agenda. We want us to be united.”
Har Bracha employee Alice Zeeman, a religious settler with seven children who was born in Germany and converted to Judaism in her teens, told me that the facility opened 20 years ago because “there was a prophecy.” After being evacuated from the West Bank settlement of Homesh in 2005, along with thousands of settlers in Gaza during the so-called “disengagement,” Zeeman was unequivocal about her Arab neighbours. “I shout at Arabs [because they kill Jews],” she said. “I don’t call them Palestinians. They’re our enemy. We cannot employ the Arabs here. In the vineyard, only Jews work. I don’t want to see Arabs dead but I just want them to live somewhere else in the Arab world. They can only live here if they accept Jewish rule. It’s in the Bible.”
Wearing a red headscarf and speaking with a slight German accent, Zeeman explained that one of her life missions was to have a large family. “I never listen to the news. I just keep on having children. One of the most important products of the settlements are children.” She disagreed with the idea of Arabs either working with her or building settlements. A common sight across the West Bank is Palestinians constructing Israeli homes, because they have few other job opportunities due to high unemployment and a traditional farming economy that has been crushed by the Israeli occupation. “Settlements should just be built by Jews,” Zeeman said. It was a view echoed by Lavi. “We only want to have Israelis build our community,” he said.
This is a story of how the settlers won. After nearly 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, its proponents have placed themselves in all levels of the Israeli state, guaranteeing institutional support for the continued expansion of settlements across the West Bank. It has rendered impossible any contiguous Palestinian state, the clear aim of the settlers and their enablers from the beginning. The two-state solution is dead, if it was ever possible.
I recently spent time traveling across the West Bank in the searing June heat talking to settlers, sleeping overnight in their houses and engaging on politics, daily life and Palestinians. I was given a unique insight into communities that mostly appear in the media as cartoon character extremists, blind ideologues or those seeking cheap housing (Israel encourages people to move to the West Bank by providing huge financial incentives and inexpensive accommodation). I witnessed all three, but also found people defiant in their beliefs, angered by what they perceived was global opposition to their lives fueled by anti-Semitism and confident that they were unlikely to be forced to leave their homes in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Jewish supremacy, the belief that Jews have the God-given right to control all the land in Israel and Palestine and the Arabs must submit to it, was ubiquitous throughout my travels. Paternalism merged with capitalism. Yehuda Cohen, CEO of the plastics company Lipski, which has a factory in the West Bank Barkan industrial park, told me that he hired 50 Palestinian workers because he gave “people hope. I need Palestinians and they need me.” He said that Europeans wanted to boycott his products and label them but today he was still able to sell freely across Europe.
There are around 1,000 Israeli companies operating in over a dozen industrial zones in the West Bank and about 25,000 Palestinians working in these facilities, usually making more money than if they were employed by Palestinian firms. Many Palestinian workers and unions oppose these jobs because they normalize the occupation and do nothing to strengthen the Palestinian economy. Human Rights Watch issued a report in January criticizing Israeli discrimination for “entrenching a system that contributes to the impoverishment of many Palestinian residents of the West Bank while directly benefitting settlement businesses, making Palestinians’ desperate need for jobs a poor basis to justify continued complicity in that discrimination.”
“Europeans wanted to boycott my products,” Cohen said, “but they have a brain and see that I’m part of the solution and not the problem for the conflict.” One of his Palestinian workers, Abel, argued that, “if Europeans boycott us, it affects our livelihoods. We should bring Arab students here to see how co-existence is possible.” It was impossible to know if these were his real views—because his boss was standing beside him when he spoke.
In the company staff room, Cohen showed me a pin-board full of photographs where he said he took his Palestinian and Jewish employees on short holidays. He wasn’t overly worried about growing boycott threats against his factory from around the world because, as he told The Times of Israel in 2014, “If we let them [the Europeans] profit, in the end they’ll invest. The Europeans know one thing: Israel treats them well.”
At a briefing by the Shomron Regional Council, one of the largest in the West Bank, travel guide Boaz Haetzni proudly said that there were now roughly 430,000 Jewish residents in the West Bank and appropriately 250,000 in East Jerusalem. All settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. “Settlements have negative connotations so we use the terms ‘towns’ and ‘villages’,” he said.
Haetzni was frustrated that Israeli outposts in the West Bank, mostly considered illegal even under Israeli law, “were not authorized because of American pressure. We live in an economically viable area but the government of Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to disturb this growth. Our area is the solution to Israel’s housing crisis but authorities are trying to stop us.” He attacked President Barack Obama for placing unfair restrictions on Israeli expansion and alleged that Netanyahu publicly praised the settlements—but in private instructed his officials to contain any new construction in the occupied territories.
Haetzni acknowledged that Arab residents lived in “parallel land and systems under a different economic system and often on different roads.” This form of racial and economic discrimination is why many critics of Israel compare it to apartheid South Africa. It’s also why the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is rising in popularity across the world, especially on British and American campuses. A recent survey by Ipsos global market research found that one third of Americans and 40 percent of Britons backed a boycott of Israel, but problematically, many still viewed the tactic as anti-Semitic.
Over dips, vegetables and fresh bread, Haetnzi stated that the nearby Barkan industrial park was “the only place in the Middle East where Jews and Arabs are in peace—but we have still been boycotted by the Europeans and Palestinian Authority.” Like many settlers I met, Haetzni was obsessed with Jewish and Arab birthrates, proudly explaining that Jewish birthrates were soaring and could comfortably maintain a majority over Arabs in the West Bank for the foreseeable future. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics disagrees, having issued a report this year that found the number of Jews in Israel would equal the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories by the end of 2017.
It’s unsurprising that most settlers have no interest in leaving. They occupy some of the most fertile and beautiful parts of the West Bank. At the “Israel Lookout” in the Peduel settlement, the striking green and brown horizon included Tel Aviv through a heat haze and Ben Gurion International Airport. A young settler man serenaded his girlfriend with a guitar while sitting in a solitary wooden seat overlooking the view. The scene was tranquil and yet something was missing; Arabs were nowhere to be seen or heard. My guide Yehoshua Carmel, a friendly 30-year-old man born and living in Elkana settlement, acknowledged that it was “not normal to have Israeli soldiers around us all the time [for security]. I don’t want to live like this but it’s the only solution for now. If the IDF leaves here, it means that the government doesn’t want me to stay in this area. I would be very sad.”
I asked Carmel about settler violence against Palestinians, a constant threat and reality against Arab lives, farms and equipment, but he denied it was a problem and claimed the majority of attacks in the West Bank were by Arabs against Jews. “Maybe there are 50 fundamentalist Jews who want to use violence but most of us oppose violence,” he said. In July 2015, Palestinians in the village of Duma were firebombed by Jewish settlers and three members of the Dawabsheh family died including their 18-month old baby, Ali. Carmel questioned whether Jews could have committed such a grievous act. “It’s the wish of many around the world that the Duma murderers are Jewish,” he said. “It’s not terrorism if Jews did it; it’s murder. I won’t put the same terror label against Jews and Arabs. I’m religious and Duma was terrible. I’m praying it’s not Jews who did it.”
Israel’s settler movement has succeeded brilliantly in realizing its goals since 1967 due to a number of complimentary factors including decades-long persistence, Israel’s growing rightward shift, widespread distrust and contempt for Arabs and international support and complicity. The Jewish State’s backing of colonizing the West Bank has been prohibitively expensive, however. It was estimated by Israeli experts in 2007 to have cost US$50 billion since 1967 including security and civilian expenses.
Israel’s army has around 176,000 active duty soldiers and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman has calculated that it takes nearly 100,000 soldiers to keep the West Bank under Israeli control. US$600 million is required to maintain the occupation every year. The World Bank says that the Palestinian economy loses US$3.4 billion a year due to Israel’s discriminatory practices.
After nearly five decades of settlement expansion, reversing the trend is currently impossible. Although American and European governments often issue stern criticisms of Israel when new settlements are announced, there’s no economic incentive or punishment for Israel to end the addiction to expanding its territory. According to a new report by the non-profit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Israel has destroyed US$74 million worth of European Union projects in Palestinian territory in 2016, but the Jewish state has received no more than a public rebuke. U.S. President Barack Obama was condemned throughout my travels across the West Bank as anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli, but his time in office has seen the greatest financial support for the Jewish state in the country’s history.
Yet another failed peace initiative was recently pushed by France. A meeting was held in Paris that resulted in a bland statement with vague intentions to pursue an international conference before the end of the year, and Israel dismissed it entirely. The Palestinian Authority, a corrupt and un-elected body residing in Ramallah that faces increasing opposition from its own people for decades of mismanagement and failure, welcomed the initiative but has no power to encourage it. Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that faces a strangulating blockade from Israel and Egypt, are determined to hold onto power and avoid another devastating military conflict with Israel.
With Daesh, Syria, Libya and Iraq weighing the region down into protracted conflicts, the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer the key Middle East issue to be resolved. The ‘peace-process’ is dead, and Israel’s settler movement has capitalised on its demise; Netanyahu’s government has pro-settler politicians at every level including the recently appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
When resigning Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned in May of “manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society,” his message was decades too late. Thousands of Israelis converged at a Tel Aviv rally in April to support a solider who had executed an injured Palestinian in Hebron and the mood of the crowd was extreme, with one sign copying the Nazi SS slogan, “My honour is loyalty.” Also attending were members of Jewish supremacist group El Yahud who often attack Palestinians and leftist Israelis.
This wasn’t a fringe crowd but accurately representative of Israel’s body politic in 2016 with prominent politicians attending the event, including those from Netanyahu’s Likud party. A headline in Israeli daily Haaretz recently read: “Neo-fascists Threaten the West. In Israel They’ve Already Arrived.”
The settlers are equally mainstream and cannot be dismissed as minor players. Supporters recently released a guide book for tourists, “Yesha is Fun: The Good Life Guide to Judea and Samaria” [Biblical names for the West Bank] that pushes a “new and unique type of boutique tourism…tens of years after the return of the People of Israel to the land of our forebears”. Israel’s Civil Administration, tasked with managing the West Bank, were recently exposed by Haaretz for secretly re-mapping large sections of the West Bank in attempts to massively expand settlements. Israel’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, announced in late May that it would no longer file complaints to the IDF and Israeli police about Israeli abuses in the West Bank and Gaza, citing poor or non-existent investigations by Israeli authorities.
Although there are small moves within Israel to find possible solutions to the conflict—“Two States One Homeland,” a new, small group including left-wing Israelis, Palestinians and settlers, advocates two sovereign states with open borders—the general Israeli mood is one of defiance, and an acceptance of the status-quo. It’s why the settler movement is so comfortable with its position and has few fears for its future. A 2016 poll by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute found that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis did not believe that Israeli control over Palestinians was occupation.
It was a hot June afternoon when I reached Kashuela Farms near the Gush Etzion settlements. Located near Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I drove down a dirt track to find two Jewish families living in basic conditions in a partially cleared forest, with a simple campsite and two tipis for visitors. A website advertising the location said that, “putting it mildly, the Arab villagers in the area do not ‘like’ the presence of the farm. Hence there is round-the-clock security.” Herds of goats and sheep lived in large enclosures and I arrived to find a British, Jewish woman and her three children, all living in a nearby settlement, buying a few chickens as pets.
It was a peaceful environment. Head farmer Yair Ben-David, 38-years-old with four children, told me that he had moved to the area four years ago because the Israeli government only wanted Jews to protect the 2,000 donums of land. After the Jewish National Fund and mayor of Gush Etzion provided initial assistance to secure Jewish hold on the territory, Ben-David started developing the site. “It’s Jewish land,” he said. “Even if Palestinians have ancestors here, they don’t have a 2,000-year connection like us.” He was friendly with only one Arab man who lived in an adjacent village. “Sometimes it’s better to have no relationship [with Arabs] than a bad relationship,” he said. “Arabs know that Israel is the best place to live [in the Middle East].”
I joined Ben-David’s family and his related neighbours for a Sabbath meal inside a house made secure with water pipes and plastic sheeting. Hebrew blessings were given over the bread and the food consisted of salads, roasted chicken and vegetables, Shepherd’s pie, beans and quinoa. The children ate and then ran around the room, rendered freezing after the blaring air-conditioning could not be switched off during the Sabbath. Ben-David had timers to control the lights and hot plate for food, because he was religiously unable to do it during the Sabbath.
During the meal, we discussed relationships, the 2005 Gaza disengagement (“one of the saddest days in Israeli history,” one said), successive Gaza wars (I was told that the Israeli military was too cautious and overly worried about civilian casualties) and the boycott movement against Israel (it could only be explained as anti-Semitism, Ben-David said). The atmosphere was friendly and I sensed they welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics with somebody whose views opposed theirs.
After sleeping in a tipi, the following morning I accompanied Ben-David and two of his children to the gated outpost of Gevaot on a nearby hilltop to attend Sabbath prayers. It was held in a modern synagogue overlooking a playground paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton-Passaic in New Jersey. A highly controversial outpost, in 2014 the Israeli government appropriated large tracts of private Palestinian land and illegally redefined it as Israeli state land. Today it houses around 35 families. Many of the residents were with special needs, including Down’s syndrome, and some of these men contributed to the gender-separated, morning prayers. A civilian, Jewish guard with a machine gun walked in and placed his weapon beneath him while he prayed. After the service, I saw four IDF soldiers relaxing near a settler home, playing with their caged animals, and enjoying ice-creams given to them by a settler woman.
The settlers have created an armed, garrison state with a frontier mentality. Defiant in their belief that God gave Jews the land and Arabs must submit to their rule or leave, their success over five decades of expansion is clear. Funded, insulated, protected and armed by the Israeli state, Israel’s present and future is being written by them. It’s a vision that guarantees ongoing racial tensions and Palestinian dispossession. The international community has known this for decades and done virtually nothing to stop it.