During the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yosrah Kafarnah feared for her family’s life. Situated in Beit Hanoun, a town close to the Israeli border that was the site of fierce fighting throughout the seven-week war, they fled to a nearby school for protection. Run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), Kafarnah was with her husband, Imad, and their two children. Israel attacked the school so they went to another one. “Gazans thought that UNRWA spaces were safe,” she tells me.
“I was scared when I saw fighting between Israel and Hamas,” she says, now sitting in her caravan, a temporary home made of tin that became semi-permanent. An Israeli surveillance blimp hovers in the sky as Imad explains how he carried injured people to hospital during the bombardment. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
A 2015 UN report found that Israel struck seven sites designated as civilian shelters in the 2014 Gaza war, killing 44 Palestinians and injuring 227. No Israelis have been charged for these incidents, or any attacks, during the war.
Beit Hanoun was particularly badly hit in the 2014 conflict and 70 per cent of its housing became uninhabitable. Today, sand, rubbish and discarded clothes remain strewn across the ground but the UAE, Qatar and the Maldives have funded some reconstruction. The Kafarnah family, like many I meet, live in shoddy caravans that are bitterly cold in the winter and extremely hot in summer.
The UN provides the bare minimum of oil, milk and wheat flour every three months, while the ruling Hamas government distributes a small amount of cash every quarter.
It is a desperate existence. Imad is unable to work due to a decade-old injury and he doesn’t want his wife to work because of the potential gossip in the community if she talks to unrelated men. It is a deeply conservative and religious area where men and women, who are not family, rarely mix. The couple have decided not to have another child because of their financial situation.
The precariousness of their existence deepened after Hamas recently ordered them to leave the caravan by the end of last month, because they want to build a market at the location. “I refused to sign the eviction papers,” Yosrah says. “Our caravan is in good shape and we are not told where to go. We cannot pay rent [at another place].”
Families in Beit Hanoun, many with up to 10 children, were told by the UN and Hamas after 2014 that they would have their houses rebuilt, but Israel and Egypt’s crushing siege of almost 10 years of the Gaza Strip ruined those plans. Furthermore, political infighting between Hamas and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA), corruption within Hamas and the UN, and a reconstruction plan that was arguably designed to fail from the beginning, have all contributed to today’s parlous state of affairs.
Gaza has experienced three wars in the past decade, each more devastating than the last. I last visited Gaza in 2009, six months after Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. I found an enclosed territory and population struggling to adapt to Hamas rulers and recovering from devastated homes and lives.
The 2014 conflict, that killed more than 2,250 Palestinians – hundreds of them children – and left thousands permanently injured, along with the deaths of 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, still reverberates in Gaza; another war, just around the corner, is always feared.
According to the UN, more than 96,000 housing units were either destroyed entirely or in part during the 2014 war. During the conflict, 500,000 people – one quarter of the population – were internally displaced with nowhere to go.
In a report last year, the UN feared that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” within five years on current economic trends (though many Gazans worried it would happen earlier). Unemployment is at least 44 per cent and three-quarters of the population are threatened by hunger.
These struggles are ubiquitous across Beit Hanoun and the Strip. Farmers tend their small fields while dealing with frequent Israeli gunfire. Skin diseases appear on children’s arms and legs due to unhygienic conditions. Inside dirty caravans, cockroaches scurry around boxes of food. Disabled children barely leave their rooms because their families cannot afford care. One mother tells me that she often refused to send her son to school in the winter because his clothes were always wet. I see horrible scarring on a child’s buttock after a makeshift fire ran out of control. Cancer rates are up and bed wetting for children is common.
The social fabric of society is strained. The NGO Aisha Foundation reports that sexual abuse and domestic violence are soaring and yet the Hamas government wants to restrict public discussion about it. Executive director Reem Frainah says “women are not enslaved here”, but also that “there’s no equality between men and women. There are no laws to determine boundaries between the genders.”
In another caravan, with rotting floors, fraying equipment and dangerous gas stoves, Samaher Al Shenbari was recently told by Hamas that her dwelling would be destroyed to make way for a wedding hall. She opposed the forced relocation because there was nowhere to go. She says many of her family’s children have not accepted that their home was destroyed during the 2014 conflict and they suffer psychologically and physically because of the loss. “We want a new house,” she tells me. “We want all our families living together in one home.” She talks with a newborn baby cradled in her arms.
The Gaza Strip is unlike anywhere else in occupied Palestine. Its two million residents were punished after 2006 for voting the “wrong” party into power. Hamas defeated the American- and Israeli -backed PA and, since 2007 when Hamas assumed power, Egypt and Israel have imposed a stifling economic blockade on the territory, restricting goods and the movement of people. This year has seen a precipitous decline in Israeli permits granted for Gazans to leave and Egypt’s Rafah border is rarely open. Exports are minimal and the import of essential building materials is negligent. Economic activity barely operates because Israel has rescinded countless permits for businesspeople entering and leaving Gaza.
I meet countless Gazans who are literally trapped, constantly refused permission to travel abroad or into Israel to study, live or seek medical care. After Israel recently charged a Palestinian man in Gaza from the Christian charity World Vision with diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas – allegations challenged by his employer and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – Israel tightened its travel restrictions on Palestinians in Gaza working for NGOs.
Some Gazans, who can afford it, pay bribes to Hamas and Egyptian officials to put them at the top of the list when the Rafah crossing occasionally opens. Birth rates have declined in Gaza due to the hardships.
After the 2014 war, the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) was established by the UN, Israel and the PA to facilitate rebuilding. The main donors are the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, Britain and South Korea. NGO Aid Watch Palestine, which calls for the GRM to be replaced by a more accountable system, has assessed that “the GRM transfers enforcement of Israel’s policing to the UN and the PA, thus making the UN and the PA involved with Palestinian human rights violations, particularly the blockade on Gaza, which is a form of illegal collective punishment”.
Aid Watch co-director Haneen Elsammak tells me in Gaza that her group was started after the 2014 war because it was always foreign NGOs along with international groups, and not Palestinians, following the massive amount of aid money flowing into Gaza. Palestinians were rarely given control over their own lives.
UNRWA director in Gaza, Bo Schack, refuses to use the term “collective punishment” with me when describing the situation in Gaza. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam all condemn the blockade as “collective punishment”. He notes the UN in the past 12 months has rebuilt 1,300 homes and provides rent money to many residents. He acknowledges a US$70 million (Dh257m) shortfall for vital activities at a time when the Middle East is suffering multiple conflicts.
Schack says that when he started his job in Gaza in 2015, 850,000 Palestinians were receiving food assistance. “Today we are almost at one million,” he explains, “and that means we are supporting half the total population of Gaza.”
Israel is tightening its blockade on Gaza and in the last months has barely allowed any materials in at all, including cement and civilian infrastructure. Many builders tell me that they have fired countless workers this year because there is no work.
Contractor Saadi A S Salama says employees come to him crying because they desperately needed work to support their families. Private contractors have protested in the streets over the lack of goods getting through the borders.
Why has reconstruction largely failed? Engineer Ali K Abu Shahla says in his office in Gaza City, after spending decades working with Palestinian authorities, that, “even today, there is no plan for Gaza reconstruction”. He attended a key meeting in Jerusalem after the 2014 war where a process was drafted to reconstruct Gaza. However, it was proposed to include six people from the West Bank and only one from Gaza.
“I asked [then] why people involved were not from Gaza, why the major individuals had no experience or eyes and ears in Gaza,” he says.
The PA and Israel had little interest in helping the people of Gaza in the faint hope that a desperate population would overthrow the ruling Hamas regime.
To get a new home approved is still a tortuous process. Coordinates of the new property are sent to a committee and a group of both Israelis and Palestinians must approve it. According to Abu Shahla, “Israel has no right to veto properties but they keep projects ‘under construction’ for months and years”.
This committee allows Israel to know the GPS coordinates of all new structures, which many locals say could be used by Israel as targets in any future war, along with every contractor’s name and address.
The “dual use” list includes thousands of goods that Israel claims can be used for military purposes, but Israeli NGO Gisha argues that it “includes items whose use is overwhelmingly civilian and critical for civilian life”. Cement, steel and other major construction materials are allowed to enter Gaza by Israel if they are produced by Israeli companies. Israel is profiting after causing the bulk of Gaza’s destruction, and heavily taxing the goods they allow in.
Khalil Shaheen, director of economic and social rights with the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, condemns the “dual use” list as inhumane. “Hamas may be using materials for tunnels, but what can I do as a Gazan civilian?”, he asks me. “Should I wait 15 years for a new home? Israel has a legal responsibility to protect civilians.”
A former NGO director for Gaza explains the Israeli rationale: “Their policy and approach is to put Gaza on the starvation diet and make things bad, but not so bad that it would lead to revolution or [a] swing of support in their favour internationally.”
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman recently told a Palestinian newspaper that Israel was willing to lift its blockade on Gaza, “if Hamas stops digging tunnels, rearming and firing rockets”. He claimed Israel would build an airport, port and industrial areas.
The future of Gaza remains tenuous. With Hamas leadership elections early next year, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in his 80s, and Israel reaching 50 years occupying Palestinian lands in 2017, Palestinian autonomy feels like a distant dream. Gaza’s humanitarian crisis reveals that without stronger international pressure, the territory will wither.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist based in East Jerusalem.
My investigation in US magazine The Nation (print and online) about Israel privatising its occupation of Palestinian land. It’s co-written with the great, London-based journalist Matt Kennard. This work continues my years-long research into disaster capitalism globally:
t’s 4:30 am with the moon still high in the sky, but Palestinians from across the West Bank are already disembarking from buses outside the Qalandia checkpoint near Jerusalem. They’re about to begin a day’s work on the other side of the separation wall, in Israel.
among the highest in the world, according to the United Nations), it’s always extremely busy at this early hour, because Palestinians need work, which is more readily available in Israel, especially in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.Qalandia is one of the busiest checkpoints through which Palestinians with the required work documents can travel from the occupied Palestinian territories to Israel. With unemployment around 26 percent in the West Bank (in Gaza, it’s far worse—
Roughly 63,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, though it’s estimated that 120,000 Palestinians work for Israelis; 27,000 of them are employed in illegal industrial zones in the West Bank that are operated and owned by Israeli companies, and 30,000 of them work illegally in Israel because they’re unable to obtain the necessary work permits. Permits to work in Israel are routinely revoked for spurious “security” reasons, and Palestinians are rarely given a reason for rejection. Since the so-called “knife intifada” last October, Israel revoked thousands of permits, citing fears of Palestinian terrorism, and the Israeli government is currently discussing a sizable reduction in the tax breaks granted to Palestinian laborers in Israel, which would make a significant dent in their already-meager wages.
In the early hours of the morning, Palestinian men (and only a handful of women) rush to beat the long lines and frequent Israeli closures at the checkpoint entrance. Such activity seems incongruous in the predawn hours, when the stark neon lights of the checkpoint are the only illumination for these harried workers. Many smoke cigarettes as they wait in line; one man wears a T-shirt with the words “Chicken Revolution” on the back.
The warehouse-like checkpoint looks like a cattle pen on the inside: Metal bars on either side and above form a narrow chute, enclosing and herding the workers—many of whom have traveled from villages more than an hour away—toward the point where their documents will be checked by Israeli officials. They then wait on the Israeli side for transport from their employers.
For years, these checkpoints were manned by personnel from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Border Police. But starting in January 2006, gun-toting private security guards joined the soldiers and police. Today, there are 12 checkpoints in the West Bank and two on the Gaza border that use such guards. Israel is slowly privatizing its occupation.
Many of the Palestinians we speak to are unaware of the changes. As far as they’re concerned, any Israeli with a gun and a badge is licensed to humiliate them. Day laborer Imad (like most Palestinians we interviewed, he didn’t want to give his last name) is standing in line at Qalandia and smoking a cigarette. He has slicked-back hair and wears a gray T-shirt. “If they are supposed to help, they don’t,” he says of the private security guards. “They are no different from the army.”
Just after 6 am, armed figures who initially look like Israeli soldiers start turning up; they’re wearing uniforms darker than the traditional olive green of the IDF, with a badge that reads “Ezrachi.” The company Modi’in Ezrachi is the largest security contractor currently employed by the Israeli government, and its personnel were among the first private guards the government used to staff its checkpoints. They can also be seen checking public buses in Jerusalem, protecting Jewish compounds in mostly Arab East Jerusalem (with the guards accused of terrorizing Palestinians and enabling settler violence), and standing watch at the city’s Western Wall plaza. Modi’in Ezrachi has repeatedly breached Israeli labor laws by underpaying its workers, along with other violations, but this has had no effect on its ability to get government contracts. This is a trend we’ve witnessed in many other nations, including Australia, Britain, the United States, and Greece, where governments and private security firms collude to avoid responsibility. (Modi’in Ezrachi did not respond to multiple requests for comment on its activities.)
When it comes to private security, the IDF, and the police, “we can’t differentiate between them,” says Reham, a 22-year-old medical and psychology student at An-Najah University in Nablus. Reham, who hails from Jerusalem, has six more years of study before she’s qualified to become a doctor. We speak to her and her friends just outside the chaotic Qalandia terminal.
“It’s miserable,” Reham continues. “Sometimes there are many people there, and you have to wait a long time. Sometimes you have to wait for an hour.” She was unaware that the checkpoints were being gradually privatized. “I haven’t noticed it. People take it [security] as a job.”
There’s a long history of humiliation inflicted on Palestinians at checkpoints. The Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem has released countless reports over the years documenting the abuse. The Israeli women’s organization Machsom Watch has been monitoring the checkpoints since 2001 and advocating on behalf of Palestinians whose work-permit applications are unfairly rejected.
Reham explains her own experience. “It depends on the individual soldier or policeman,” she says. “Sometimes they let you go; they don’t talk to you. Generally, girls are more mean than boys—I don’t know why that is.”
The Israeli NGO Who Profits, which tracks the private-sector companies cashing in on the illegal occupation of the West Bank, released a reportearlier this year that lifted the lid on this trend. “In recent decades,” the report stated, “many military responsibilities were handed over to private civilian companies, turning the private security industry into one of the fastest growing industries in Israel.”
PRIVATE MUSCLE IN THE LAWLESS ZONE
As the sun rises on another hot August day, its rays hit the separation wall near the Qalandia checkpoint; on it, one can see ads for apartments in Palestine. Coffee sellers do a roaring business among those waiting in line. A wall near the checkpoint features a large painting of men—“martyrs” to locals—from Qalandia village who have been killed by Israeli security forces.
On one level, it’s a mystery why Israel feels it needs more muscle at these checkpoints. Palestinians passing through already face a maze of confusion, and another level of security bureaucracy hasn’t helped. But even if more muscle is needed, why not just send more soldiers? After all, Israel has a captive security labor force in its large conscript army, which requires three years’ service for men and two for women (and reserve duty is obligatory for men until age 51 and for women until age 24).
Iyad Haddad, a 53-year-old field researcher with B’Tselem for the past 15 years, has spent his whole career investigating Israeli human-rights abuses against Palestinians. “Before, the Israeli forces were clear, with a clear uniform,” he tells us in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. “Sometimes, before the second intifada [which began in fall of 2000], they used undercover units by using civilian dress. But in that period, I don’t remember that they used private groups. But after the second intifada, I started to notice that there is a different type of tactic: using private Israeli forces and companies at checkpoints, guarding the barrier, doing security on the barrier and in the jails. Also guarding the settlements.”
“The Invisible Force,” which compared private security in Colombia, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories, the International Institute for Nonviolent Action found: “Outsourcing began with the delegation of non-military services such as catering, transportation and other logistic services, then continued with the construction of military systems, including the separation Wall, and finally included the delegation of some of its functions of maintenance of public order and security in the [occupied Palestinian territories].”This move was part of a global trend, from Iraq to Colombia, in which private security and military companies increasingly began to assume state functions. Most companies started with more mundane operations but ended up carrying out those involving violence. In their 2016 report
It has become more confusing for Haddad to figure out who has committed violations, as many Palestinians aren’t aware that they’re dealing with private security forces. “Sometimes, Palestinians describe to me forces that I can’t recognize,” he says. He believes this is one of the main reasons Israel has turned to these companies. “They use them to escape accountability, especially because the people can’t recognize them, and it becomes easier for them to use force when they want [to do so] without accountability. Instructions regarding Israeli or international law are easier to escape via private forces.”
Haddad’s hunch seems to be correct. At the Qalandia checkpoint this past April, two Palestinians—Maram Saleh Abu Ismail, 23, and her brother Ibrahim Saleh Taha, 16—were shot dead by Modi’in Ezrachi guards. It was one of the first high-profile killings carried out by private security guards at a West Bank checkpoint. The siblings, who witnesses said didn’t seem to understand instructions in Hebrew, were branded “terrorists” by the Israeli police because one of them, Ismail, allegedly threw a knife at officers. Not long afterward, the justice ministry announced that it was dropping an investigation into the killings without charging anyone. The Israeli defense minister’s office, the IDF, and Modi’in Ezrachi all ignored our questions about the incident.
In theory, these private security guards could be prosecuted in Israeli courts since they’re not protected under Israeli law in the same way as police and soldiers. However, an Israeli court placed a gag order on the case (partially lifted in October), making it impossible to see footage of the shootings and prove the security guards were at fault. The family of the victims were given no recourse to justice. In this way, privatized occupation enforcement serves the interests of the Israeli state.
In its 2014 report “The Lawless Zone,” the Israeli nonprofit Yesh Din wrote that private security forces “are equipped with IDF weapons, undergo military training, and are empowered to undertake policing actions, such as searches and detentions, and to use force.”
At the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, which is surrounded by Israel’s separation wall, we witnessed Ezrachi guards checking the documents of bus and car passengers, taking on many of the roles that used to be done solely by state security forces or police. When we approached the guards, they scowled at us and told us to leave. Black smoke from burning rubbish, collecting near the separation wall, wafted through the air.
When we contacted the Israeli Ministry of Defense for comment about its matrix of control across the West Bank, we were told that “some of the crossings receive assistance from companies specializing in security and protection.” The ministry advised us to speak to the IDF for further details, because “the crossing points around Jerusalem” are its responsibility. But the IDF told us, “The Ministry of Defense is the appropriate body to speak with on this subject.” It was a Kafkaesque dead end that gave us a small window into the impossibility facing Palestinians who seek justice for loved ones killed or injured by private security contractors.
THE ETHOS OF PRIVATIZATION
From its founding in 1948 until the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel was supported by much of the global left, which saw it as a socialist nation committed to social justice and equality. True, this was always a convenient myth that ignored the endemic and state-sponsored discrimination against the Arab minority (in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens lived under direct military rule from the end of the 1948 war until 1966). Until the mid-1970s, Israel had one of the smallest wealth gaps in the West (for Jews), with the welfare state providing decent support for its Jewish population. But by the mid-1990s, the gap between rich and poor had skyrocketed. Israeli academic Daniel Gutwein, who teaches at the University of Haifa, writesthat “Israel’s ethos of social solidarity has been replaced by an ethos of privatization.”
Of course, after Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, the state never considered granting universal welfare coverage to Palestinians in the newly conquered territories. Palestinians under occupation were subject to military rule, a policy that continues to this day.
From the late 1970s, right-wing governments in Israel, led by the Likud Party, argued that dismantling the welfare state was the best way to liberalize the economy. Simha Erlich, Israel’s finance minister from 1977 until 1979, boasted that hardline economist and privatization zealot Milton Friedman was his economic adviser.
Shir Hever, author of The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation (2010) and a graduate student at the Free University of Berlin who specializes in security privatization, says: “In 1985, as the World Bank and the IMF imposed ‘structural adjustment plans’ on developing countries struggling with debt, the Israeli government voluntarily adopted such a plan. The Israeli ‘Stabilization Plan’ of 1985 was a transformative moment in the country’s economy, marking the shift from a social-democratic, planned market into a neoliberal one.”
Hever continues: “Actual privatization of large government-owned companies started in the 1990s, and privatization in the defense sector followed later, first with the sale of factories out of government-owned arms companies, and later with massive outsourcing of security operations to private companies during the second intifada.” Israel was following the model set by Ronald Reagan’s America and Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, the US military industry encouraged the Israelis to privatize their weapons industry.
Hever argues that privatization in Israel was driven by the same factors leading the charge internationally: “Private-sector investors used neoliberal ideology to claim that the government was inefficient in running businesses and were able to buy Israel’s telecommunications giant, its largest airline, its giant shipping company, oil refineries, and all but one of its banks at fire-sale prices.”
Health, labor, and education were targeted, and it wasn’t long before Israel’s middle class began to suffer from the brutal discipline of market forces. A calamitous drop in union representation and reduced regulations corresponded with falling living conditions. By the 2000s, membership in the Histadrut labor organization had dropped by two-thirds, from a figure of 2 million in the early 1990s. (Over the past decade, however, Israel has a seen a steady increase in union membership, as the country’s population struggles to survive financially.)
Today, the results of outsourcing are clear. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to selling off billions of dollars in state assets, a policy he’s proudly championed for years and one he started during his first term in office in the late 1990s. But the Israeli public is paying a high price. Israel now has the highest poverty level among the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. According to UNICEF, in 2016 Israel showed the highest level of inequality among children in the world’s 41 most developed states, with one-third living below the poverty line. In 2015, Israel’s National Insurance Institute estimated that there were 1.7 million poor people in the country, out of a population of about 8 million. The pay gap has also widened, and increases in the cost of living and high rents led to massive protests in 2011.
But not everybody is suffering. The country’s military establishment is both privatizing the weapons sector and selling this technology abroad. Israeli writer and activist Jeff Halper argues in his book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and the Global Pacification (2015) that the occupation isn’t a burden for Israel but a “resource,” because it gives the Jewish state the opportunity to test weapons and surveillance in the field on Palestinians, along with assisting other states in their military and intelligence needs. Growing numbers of European and US officials have been visiting Israel in recent years to learn about its security and defense systems.
Take the Israeli company Magal Security Systems, which surrounded Gaza with fencing, assisted construction of the barrier along the Egyptian and Jordanian frontiers in recent years, and is bidding to build a wall on the Kenya-Somalia border to protect Kenyans from Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks. The company’s head, Saar Koursh, recently told Bloomberg that “the border business was down, but then came ISIS and the Syrian conflict. The world is changing, and borders are coming back big-time.”
reconsider arm deals with Israeli weapons companies.” Indeed, Hever questions the viability of Israel’s defense industry. “The arms sector in Israel is larger compared to the size of the economy than in any other country in the world,” he tells us, “but its relative share of the Israeli export market is declining.” In 2015, Israeli military exports were relatively flat, at $5.7 billion.This is just one way that Israel’s vast expertise in occupation, from militarizing borders to surveilling unwanted populations, has become a huge financial boon for one sector of the Israeli economy. It isn’t helping most of the population—poverty is rife, after all—and according to economist Hever, it’s not enough to insulate Israel from potential economic headwinds from the growing BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. “BDS is not about the size of exports but awareness of international law,” he says. “Recently, BDS activists have made some advances in regards to the arms industry itself, starting a debate in the EU about the funneling of research funds into Israel’s arms industry and convincing key Brazilian politicians to
Private companies have been investing for years in the settlement project. But that involvement, as well as the amounts of money being made, have increased dramatically in the past decade. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report, “Occupation Inc.,” that detailed how “Israeli and international businesses have helped to build, finance, service, and market settlement communities.” It added, “In many cases, businesses are ‘settlers’ themselves.”
For Israelis, the West Bank has become a kind of special economic zone, where settlements often provide more profitable business conditions—low rents, favorable tax rates, government subsidies, and access to cheap Palestinian labor—than in Israel proper. It’s a draw for Israeli companies, but also for the international market, and a lot of money is being made. Foreign direct investment in the West Bank and Gaza spiked from $9.5 million in 2002 to $300 million in 2009, before plateauing back to $120 million in 2015. The American computing behemoth Hewlett-Packard, for example, developed the biometric ID cards used by Israeli security forces at West Bank checkpoints.
HRW reports that there are 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones in the West Bank, covering about 1,365 hectares, with Israeli settlers overseeing the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land. The researchers conclude that “by virtue of doing business in or with settlements or settlement businesses, [foreign] companies contribute to…violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses.” This knowledge is beginning to have an effect.
This is one of the contradictions of privatization. While Israeli state transgressions of international law are generally ignored by its biggest benefactor, the United States (President Obama just gave Israel its largest-ever military-aid package), the BDS movement has claimed some key victories in terms of pressuring the private sector over affiliations with human-rights abuses in Palestine. For example, the French infrastructure firm Veolia announced in April 2015 that it was leaving Israel, while the British mobile-phone company Orange said just a few months later that it would terminate contracts with its Israeli partner.
This poses the question of whether the privatization of the occupation is making Israel more susceptible to international opprobrium, including boycotts. The security company G4S, the biggest private-sector security employer in the world, announced in 2014 that it was leaving Israel within three years and terminating its contracts with the Israeli prison system. (BDS claimed a victory, but when contacted by The Nation, G4S said that while it still planned for a full pullout by June 2017, “the decision to not renew the contracts was taken for commercial reasons.”) That system now holds 6,295 Palestinians as prisoners and security detainees (including, at the end of 2015, 116 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 15). In 2009, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that plans for fully private prisons were unconstitutional. But many of the systems and products used in prison—from cameras to doors to alarm systems—are made or managed by private corporations.
With the Middle East aflame, and Israel selling itself as an island of stability amid a region in conflict, there are few compelling reasons why the Jewish state won’t continue to market itself as a model in how to manage unwanted populations, with private companies the beneficiaries of this policy. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and the colonization is increasing. Without massive international pressure, it’s impossible to see how the outsourced occupation won’t become a permanent nightmare.
, a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, is the author of Antony LoewensteinDisaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe.
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
From its beginning, Israel’s settlement project was shrouded in secrecy. Newly uncovered documents from 1969, two years after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank and Gaza, revealed that the military censor was used to keep documents hidden that proved the establishment of illegal settlements.
After 50 years of occupation, Israel is a radically different country than in the late 1960s. Zionism, with a messianic and nationalist fervour, is in the ascendancy while liberal and more tolerant humanism is dying. Although Israel was celebrated by the global left as a socialist paradise, conveniently ignoring the roughly 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed during its founding in 1948, today’s Israel is entrenched in the belief that Israeli control of Palestinian land and resources is essential for its survival. Palestinians are barely heard in the Israeli media, their voices and views largely invisible. Many in the Israeli left are leaving, disillusioned with their country and its move towards an ethnocracy.
Supporters of the two-state solution are fearful that the occupation is now permanent. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation and yet liberal Zionists are desperate to maintain Jewish privilege. The “Decision at 50” movement is pushing for a referendum – for Israeli citizens only – on the fate of the West Bank. Its website calls on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask Israelis “whether Israel’s vision includes one state between the river and the sea or a two state solution”.
In theory, this sounds like a sensible idea but it’s a deeply flawed proposal. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are given no voice on their own future. After all, they bear the brunt of Israel’s military occupation. Secondly, Israelis have made it abundantly clear, over countless elections, that ever-expanding colonies in the West Bank and regular bombardments of the Gaza Strip are both necessary and morally defensible. World powers, despite occasional complaints, have done nothing to change this view including buying the latest Israeli weapons and technology battle-tested on Palestinians.
Living and travelling around Israel and Palestine, I regularly hear disparaging comments about Arabs by Israeli Jews, unwilling or incapable of imagining them as anything other than a threat to be neutralised and placed behind walls and fences. Palestinians and Israelis have barely any physical contact these days and the majority of Palestinians view Israeli Jews as brutish occupiers who steal their livelihood. They only see them as rampaging settlers or uniformed soldiers.
A recent article in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, revealed the mainstream Israeli mindset. Written by a former settler spokeswoman, Emily Amrousi, she longed for “the day we decided to win”.
“We made the decision to destroy terrorists’ homes with no advance warning”, she wrote. “We deported the families of terrorists. We wrapped the bodies of terrorists in pig skin. ‘They’ve gone crazy,’ everyone said. Yes, we had already gone crazy, when they murdered a young girl in her bed.”
After five decades of occupation, with no end in sight, no interest in establishing a Palestinian state or giving full rights to all Arabs, the international community has a decision to make. It can continue to indulge Israeli policies or take concrete action to change them through severing military or diplomatic connections.
Two-state backers are often called the “peace process industry” because they’ve been making money for decades writing opinion pieces and being hired by politicians to convince sceptics that peace is just around the corner if Palestinians capitulate and Israel removes a few settlements.
There are more than 500,000 settlers living illegally on Palestinian land. Moving them all is an impossibility. Besides, Israel feels no real pressure to do so.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump sell themselves as Israel’s best friends but in fact they’re its worst enemies, funding its insatiable appetite for never-ending expansion. With many Middle East states consumed by civil war, freedom for Palestinians is now a fifth tier issue in the diplomatic community.
Could the occupation last another 50 years?
Quite possibly, if Israeli hardliners annex vast swaths of the West Bank, kick out Palestinians by stealth and continue selling to the world the methods, technology and ideology that celebrate the control of a people led by corrupt leaders.
Next year’s occupation anniversary will be marked with global protests, loud voices of opposition and harsh denunciations of Israel. But the occupation is permanent and sustainable unless Israeli Jews are made to pay an economic price for it. Daily life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation is barely discussed in the Israeli media. Colonisation is seen to be almost cost-free. A healthy society would never tolerate millions of people living under military rule.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist in Jerusalem
Here’s his latest discovery (written by Mack and sent to me):
For some time I received reports of Israeli rifles in Rwanda. I think this is the first time that there are pictures of Tabor rifles; videos and photos of Rwandan soldiers who received Bibi [Netanyahu] in Kigali.
It’s very interesting why suddenly Israel and Rwanda decided to reveal it. Rwanda has one of the best controls in Africa of the public information in the press and it is difficult to leak something. If Israel and Rwanda did not want it to be published, this would not have happened. Evidence here and here.
In addition, it turns out that in early August, a lobby for Rwanda-Israel relations was established in the Knesset and Hezi Bezalel, the arms dealer (according to many publications), who is Rwanda’s Honorary Consul, spoke.
Another interesting thing: Kagame’s former advisor (between 2000-2010), David Himbara, who became his critic, said quite amazing things concerning Bibi’s “historic” visit in Africa:
“David Himbara, a former aide of President Kagame, who has since become his vocal critic, said PM Netanyahu’s visit and the hospitality he was accorded is “ironic” because of Israel’s role in the genocide in Rwanda.
“The state of Israel blocked internal investigations into its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Some of the weapons allegedly supplied by Israel to the Habyarimana regime included bullets, grenades and rifles,” said Dr Himbara.”
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
During this month’s Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, commemorating various disasters in Jewish history, thousands of Israelis marched along the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem and called for annexation of the occupied West Bank. Pro-settlement group Women in Green, founded in 1993 and “dedicated to safeguarding our God-given Biblical homeland”, spoke at the rally. Co-founder Yehudit Katsover told the Israeli government to build more settlements and claimed this wasn’t happening “because we’re afraid of pressure from the dwarf Obama … we don’t impose sovereignty because we fear the demographics”.
Other speakers, including Dov Kalmanovich, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, demanded countless more colonies across the West Bank. Former member of parliament Aryeh Eldad, who lives in an illegal settlement himself, told an cheering crowd that, “this curse of Palestine has been chasing us to this day. We must erase the name Palestine from Eretz Israel”.
A prominent member of the Israeli Knesset, Yehuda Glick, said: “We must make clear that all the talk about the chance for a Palestinian state is finished … we will proceed in imposing Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], and anyone wishing to live in peace is welcome, and if they don’t we’ll use harsh measures against them.”
It’s easy to dismiss such comments as emerging from a far-right Zionist fringe, disconnected from the Israeli population. Some Israelis would certainly oppose these ideas as antithetical to peace with the Jewish state’s Palestinian neighbours and population. But the Israeli mainstream has moved sharply to the right in the last decade. A poll conducted by the Peace Index from the Israeli Democracy Institute this year found that 72 per cent of Jewish Israelis did not consider Israeli control over Palestinians as “occupation”.
This profound state of denial is ubiquitous within Israeli society and its largely docile media. Life in the West Bank for Palestinians, let alone Gaza, is rarely examined in the press except in the context of how it impacts the ability of the Israeli Defence Forces to operate with impunity.
Next year is the 50th anniversary of Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza. Today there are more than 400,000 Jewish settlers squatting illegally in the West Bank, with at least 200,000 more in East Jerusalem.
Oxford University scholar Sara Yael Hirschhorn released figures in 2015 that showed about 15 per cent of West Bank settlers, roughly 60,000 people, were American citizens. Dr Hirschhorn told a conference in Jerusalem last year that these people were “young, idealistic, intelligent and seasoned liberal Americans who were Zionist activists, and who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler movement”.
If the majority of Israelis don’t view their policies over the Palestinians as discriminatory and regard it as normal to control countless aspects of daily Palestinian life – from house demolitions to random checkpoints and arresting children in the middle of the night to expropriating Palestinian land for ever-expanding Israeli settlements – it’s important to understand how and why this narrative became so accepted. Israel’s settler movement has operated over five decades with strategic brilliance, occupying senior positions in all levels of the government and military.
I recently travelled around the West Bank, spending time with Israeli settlers and sleeping in their homes. I wanted to understand their world view, from the religious fanatics to the pragmatic occupier who craved cheaper housing (property is far less expensive in the West Bank than in Israel proper). The mood was mostly defiant, nobody feared being evacuated any time soon, if ever, and yet insecurity and arrogance permeated many of my conversations. Some feared an unlikely coalition of local and global journalists, leftists, politicians and NGOs forcing Israel to concede territory and divide the land. To anybody who spends a few hours travelling around the West Bank, however, it is clear that a just two-state solution is no longer possible.
Orthodox Jew Yair Ben-David lives with his family at Kashuela Farms near Gush Etzion settlement. Surrounded by sheep and goats, he told me that”Palestinians know that Israel is the best place to live.
“It’s better than life under Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. Be good and you will get a good situation as a Palestinian.”
Like virtually every settler I met, Mr Ben-David tolerated Palestinians living in a Jewish state but they had to be subservient to Jewish rule.
With such facts on the ground, it seems almost unimaginable that Israel’s occupation will not last for the foreseeable future. There are no serious forces pushing against it (though the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is growing in global strength).
But never-ending colonisation presents practical and moral questions: how to manage millions of disaffected Palestinians? Ethnically cleansing them to neighbouring states is logistically challenging (let alone ethically abhorrent) and yet I’ve long wondered if western and Arab powers would really care apart from issuing stern statements of opposition. They’ve spent decades doing little else.
Israel finds itself in a unique position. Situated in a region where nations are convulsing and disintegrating, the Jewish state advertises itself as an island of stability. Occupation barely bothers any Israelis enough to do anything concrete about it and the Israeli government is packed with politicians who crave annexing the entire West Bank.
In this scenario, Palestinians are trapped between their own corrupt leaders and Israeli intransigence. A third intifada is inevitable.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist in Jerusalem and author of Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe
My essay in UAE newspaper The National:
The defence industry has never been happier. With sales at unprecedented levels – US$65 billion (Dh 238bn) in 2015, according to the Global Defence Trade Report – France, the United States, Canada and Britain have become global leaders in arms exports. The Middle East is the largest importing region and weapons companies such as Raytheon, Oshkosh, Thales, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are benefiting from continuing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
These economic advantages are now expanding further afield. The refugee crisis engulfing Europe over the past 18 months has caused untold misery, with thousands drowning in the Mediterranean, racist attacks against Arab arrivals and restive populations increasingly turning against migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Africa.
But largely ignored in the commentary and reporting from European countries struggling to cope has been the financial beneficiaries of huge migration: the arms manufacturers, private security corporations, and intelligence and surveillance multinationals. For them, Europe’s desperate desire to militarise and monitor its borders has led to a huge surge in profits.
After the attacks in Paris last November, share prices in some of these defence firms rose strongly. Lockheed Martin executive vice president Bruce Tanner told a Credit Suisse conference in West Palm Beach in the US in December that there were “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. There was “an intangible lift because of the dynamics of that environment and our products in theatre”, such as F-22s and F-35 jets.
A recent report from NGOs Stop Wapenhandel and Transnational Institute, Border Wars, provides comprehensive evidence of Europe’s zeal to outsource its border security and explains the direct link between wars in the Middle East and profits from European policies.
The European Commission wants to reform its border security agency Frontex into a more influential European Border and Coastguard Agency. This will mean even greater windfalls for defence multinationals. The report explains that the European border security industry was estimated at €15 billion (Dh61.6bn) in 2015 and is predicted to rise to more than €29 billion annually by 2022. The budget of Frontex increased 3,688 per cent between 2005 and 2016 from €6.3m to €238.7m and European states are obliged to strengthen their borders as a condition of membership.
“There is one group of interests that have only benefited from the refugee crisis, and in particular from the European Union’s investment in ‘securing its borders’,” the Border Wars report finds. “They are the military and security companies that provide the equipment to border guards, the surveillance technology to monitor frontiers, and the IT infrastructure to track population movements.”
Crucially, the report shows that “far from being passive beneficiaries of EU largesse, these corporations are actively encouraging a growing securitisation of Europe’s borders, and willing to provide ever more draconian technologies to do this”. The large defence players in Europe include Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales, Safran and Indra.
Finmecannica, Thales and Airbus are key lobbyists with the privately run European Organisation for Security and they push for tighter border security. Many of their suggestions, including the establishment of a cross-border security agency, have been adopted by the EU.
These companies are also three of the top four European arms traders selling weapons to nations in the Middle East and Africa that are experiencing the greatest unrest and fuelling refugees fleeing for their lives. In other words, these companies are making money from both selling weapons to repressive regimes and benefiting from the human fallout in Europe.
It’s a convenient convergence of interests and has generated virtually no public outcry. This is because populations across Europe are increasingly voting for political parties that believe in tight border controls and express little sympathy for outsiders trying to get in. The recent Brexit vote in Britain was won largely on a small majority of citizens wanting to “take back control of our borders”. The fact that this can only be achieved by privatising the border security network – states don’t have the technology or expertise to do it themselves – is either unknown or seen as a necessary evil.
Israeli firms are the only non-European receivers of research grants for border security under a 1996 agreement between Europe and Tel Aviv. This has already led to Hungary and Bulgaria expressing serious interest in 2015 of establishing high fences reminiscent of the barrier separating Israel and Egypt and Israel’s separation barrier through the occupied West Bank. Israel’s decades of experience controlling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, through drones, fences, walls, weapons and surveillance, is the perfect experience Europe craves during its current crisis.
Writer and activist Jeff Halper calls this the “global pacification industry”, parlaying years of occupation and battle-tested technology in the service of controlling borders and people. For example, Israel Aerospace Industries has worked with Airbus to create a surveillance drone, used in Gaza, to track refugees in Europe.
The privatisation of Europe’s borders is accelerating even as the number of refugees arriving on the continent has fallen this year. The EU has a long-term plan to militarise its borders and be prepared for any further influx of unwanted migrants. Defence firms making a fortune from migration flows should make us question the morality of the world’s obsession with the outsourcing culture.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist and author
My interview in US magazine Truthout by Dan Falcone:
Dan Falcone recently interviewed journalist, blogger, filmmaker, activist and author Antony Loewenstein in East Jerusalem via Skype to discuss his current film project, Disaster Capitalism — inspired by his 2015 book, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015), as well as a host of domestic and foreign issues impacting the West, the US and the world. In his film project, Loewenstein provides commentary on US involvement and influence in Haiti, Afghanistan, Gaza, Papua New Guinea and beyond. Loewenstein also draws parallels to Brexit and the national election in the US within his own research and work, and explains how those areas are relevant.
Daniel Falcone: I wanted to first ask you about the film that you’re making, Disaster Capitalism. I know that you’ve spoken a lot about the book, about your thesis, about the argument. Could you just tell me something about the film or where you are in the process of the film and what will the film convey differently from the book, if anything?
Antony Loewenstein: I started working on the book about five years ago, and I started working on the film at about the same time, and initially, I was working on my own. I was traveling to some of these places that are featured in the book, and decided I wanted to do a documentary about it. I didn’t know the shape of what that would look like. In 2012, I partnered with a New York-based filmmaker Thor Neureiter, and he and I have been working together ever since. He’s my film partner and we have been to Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and Haiti, twice each.
They’re featured in the book as well, but the film is different for a few reasons. One obviously touches on similar issues — people making money from misery, corporations, individuals in countries that are poor or developing. But a lot of the money ended up being unaccountable, and many Haitians themselves say to us, in the film, that “We never saw the money.”
We look at, in the film also — as I do in the book — the role of the Clintons, particularly Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Bill Clinton, of course — for those who don’t know Hillary and Bill actually had their honeymoon in Haiti in the mid-1970s. I only mention that because they have expressed a love for Haiti for decades, and what that love has actually meant though is, “I believe that Haiti should be exploited.” Until a few years ago, she was the face of putting in power the last prime minister, Michel Martelly, who was a dictator, essentially. He had no qualifications. He used to be a nightclub singer, and I’m not putting down nightclub singers, but he just had no experience in the political arena. The country, basically, has gone to turmoil since.
So the film shows communities, locally, who are suffering, and Papua New Guinea, in Bougainville, which is a small province or country to the north of Australia, it’s a beautiful, beautiful country, incredibly rich with natural resources, but in reality, like so many countries that are so wealthy, it’s incredibly poor because it’s been exploited by Australian and American and Canadian mineral companies, and Bougainville had a huge copper mine — it was the biggest in the world in the 1970s and ’80s — run by the large mineral company Rio Tinto, [which is in both] Australia and London.
There was a huge civil war over this mine. It was one of the most brutal civil wars in that part of the world, between Australia and Asia Pacific for years, but no one’s ever really heard of it. It’s not particularly known.
Outstanding work, thank you, Antony. In shifting gears a bit but perhaps related, how about the Brexit decision and other European countries that might follow suit. How is that pertinent in the realm of disaster capitalism in your estimation?
I think it’s really relevant. You know, I spend time in my book, not in the film, but in the book Disaster Capitalism, I spent quite a bit of time in the UK and looking at particularly the issue of immigration and how immigration is often being privatized and outsourced. What that means is that a lot of detention centers where immigrants are being imprisoned, essentially, run for profit. I think the Brexit decision was an interesting one.
On the one hand, I think the effect of it is going to be very negative for Britain, but at the same time, I had a great deal of sympathy, from a left-wing perspective of why people wanted to leave. I think the majority of people who wanted to leave and voted to leave were not going from a left-wing position from what I’ve read. What I’ve read and spoken to people is that there was profound degree of unease, concern, about the fact that in the last 30 years — which is something I talk about in my book — the British economy has not benefited the majority of the population, and it’s why then immigration is easily blamed for these problems.
So in line of what you’re saying in terms of Trump versus Clinton, the Trump populism, if you will, or his ethno-nationalism, is gathering support in terms of his foreign policy, where he’s trying to take advantage of this mistrust for neoliberals and institutions, and he’s not giving very constructive answers, and his base is given dangerous points of view to real concerns. Can you comment on this?
I agree, and just to be very, very clear again, this is not at all a robust defense of Donald Trump. He is using a clearly strong sentiment of an aspect of predominantly white Americans who feel totally disenfranchised from the US economy. That view is not illegitimate.
I think the people who support him don’t overly care about the fact that there’s not a great deal of detail behind his policies.
Hillary Clinton, to me, is a dangerous demagogue who also has learned nothing from history whatsoever and has made so many bad decisions on Iraq, on Libya, on many other cases. I’m not suggesting that someone like Trump would be better.
Clearly, I think it’d be wonderful that there’s a female president, yes, but surely that’s not the only important issue. How does she see women in Afghanistan? Does she think that Muslim women should be bombed in various Muslim countries? Yes, she does. That’s a less than feminist position.
They’re not leaving us with very good choices in the US; often the case.
Agreed. And if I was American, and I’m not for a second telling you how Americans should vote, I think, at the moment, I would probably vote for someone like Jill Stein who’s of the Green Party, who from what I read, has very interesting policies. They’re progressive.
When looking at a region like Gaza, how can disaster capitalism be pertinent in the Middle East and especially in terms of our relationship with Israel? For example, it seems like a lot of your work — I know you touch on warfare and the consequences of militarism, but it sounds like — what it reads to me as anyway — is your critique of imperialism and resource wars in addition to how we sponsor terrorism or military campaigns across the world, but how about specifically Gaza? Is the west essentially destroying that place only to build it back up and destroy it again and other regions that support the occupation?
The situation in Gaza is incredibly desperate. I have not been there for a few years. I was last there in 2009. I’m now based in East Jerusalem. Gaza is really almost the perfect example of the tacit failure of Israeli and US policy towards Palestinians — that there really is no great desire to resolve this issue. What I mean by that is, the circle status quo that exists between Israel and Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, is Israel doesn’t actually have a great desire to overthrow Hamas. They could overthrow Hamas in a day.
So Israel essentially believes, and the US gives uncontrolled and unlimited amounts of military support, which I might add has increased under Obama. This idea, somehow, that many in the Zionist community argue that Obama has been the worst president for Israel and a disaster, it’s a complete lie. The fact that settlements on the West Bank have no impact on the financial support that Israel has received.
The occupation is going to be 50 years old in 2017, next year. That’s in the West Bank. In Gaza, Israel in theory disengaged in 2005. As I said before, they still control the land, sea and air borders, which was always done in an incredibly bad and poor way, barely touches the surfaces of what Gaza needs.
It’s like an open-air prison. The border with Egypt is sealed virtually 99 percent of the time. The border with Israel is also mostly sealed. Very few Gazans can get in and out. So the effect that Israel, and with US and Western support, is backing, and funding and arming a permanent open-air prison, for no real strategic benefit, let alone humanitarian relief. It really depends how one views the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A lot of the Americans, when they watch the news media coverage of the Middle East, and they’re presented with a sampling — don’t really have an understanding of who the Palestinians are. They don’t know much about the Palestinians, but they see, I think, isolated acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers, and it’s a separate point to Israel “mowing the lawn,” or barricading a place like Hebron, the city that they recently did indeed block off. In other words, separate from the Israeli policy, there seems to be this marriage between what Israel does as justified because they are on the receiving end of Palestinian terrorism.
And people aren’t really able to distill the fact that Israel policy is going to carry on no matter what happens, whether there’s a stabbing, a kidnapping, an explosion, etc. People are correlating Israeli policy with actions of people on the other end of this for years. This isn’t just a media culture, but it’s in the educational system, higher education and people that study international relations. What do you think about the corporate media structure and how it delivers this picture to American society from the standpoint of what’s happening to the Palestinians?
Well, certainly, 9/11 has made this far worse, and even before then, but certainly become a lot worse since 9/11 in your country. The framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict is usually like this: Israel is defending itself. Israel was sort of sitting here minding its own business. Palestinians are aggressive. They’re angry. They’re stabbing us. They’re killing us. They’re blowing up buses in Tel Aviv. They hate us because we’re free, because we’re Jews, because we’re a democracy, whatever it may be.
That’s a fundamentally wrong and racist view. There’s no doubt that there is Palestinian violence against Israel. Yes, it happens. There are — not so much these days, but there have been suicide bombings and stabbings, and any attack, to me, against civilians is fundamentally wrong, and should stop. There’s an occupation that is happening. I’m living here in East Jerusalem. It’s happening right here, and it’s happening right down the road.
So in Israel the rhetoric — and in the US too is — Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-qaeda are all the same thing. They’re framed in all the same way, so when there’s, for example, a beheading of a journalist in Syria, or Iraq, by ISIS the last couple of years, many in the Israeli political elite and the media automatically tie that, and they say, “You see. The Arabs, they’re crazy.”
We’re still at a stage, in 2016, where we’re actually — are we not accepting it’s an occupation? Are we saying that it’s not permanent? Fifty years is permanent.
What are your thoughts on something like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) or the impact of the lobby? A lot of the criticism of Israel that I read shows the left sort of having these divisions within the progressive side in terms of criticizing the United States’ support of Israel and the occupation. How influential is the lobby? Are we more concerned with government decisions, media structures, or is the lobby the influential interest group? I see differences of opinion in terms of what question should we be asking and where do we apply a critical focus.
Also, in BDS, there’s a disagreement there too. How pertinent is BDS? Is that the most constructive response? I just see members of the left wing that are — I wouldn’t say feuding, but they disagree on the effectiveness of BDS, where do you come down on this?
Okay, two points there. There’s no doubt the Israel lobby is influential. It has power. AIPAC, which is America’s largest Israel lobby, at its conference a few months ago, and you see it’s powered by the people that are speaking there, which is pretty much all the top political leaders on the Democratic and Republican side, hundreds of Senators come, thousands of delegates, Jews and non-Jews, mostly Jews, but others too. They have influence. They have power. There’s no question about that. They push a very hardline position.
There are small groups. The group Jewish Voice for Peace is one that I have a lot of time for. They’re a lobby group of sorts. They’re liberal Jews. They’re based around the US. They have, I think, about 100,000 people signed up. They speak out very forcefully about occupation.
Let’s not forget, BDS was established, officially, in 2005 by Palestinian Civil Society, essentially saying to the world, “We’re living here under occupation. We’re asking you to please help us by not supporting any institution within Israel. That could be cultural. That could be academic.”
I think there is a desperate attempt now, in the US, to make BDS illegal. I don’t think we’re that far away from a very important test case that I suspect will go to the Supreme Court.
We’re talking about criticizing a policy which demonizes Palestinians for over half a century. Within Israel itself, BDS is not supported by the majority of Israel Jews. There’s no question about that.
Thank you, very much.
My book review in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
South Sudan is a country that almost everybody shamefully forgets. Declared independent in 2011, and still the world’s newest nation, it was engulfed by war in December 2013 and has never recovered. The scale of the suffering is monumental, though nobody knows exactly how many have died or where. Nominally an ethnic battle, pitched between the Dinka and Nuer peoples, I witnessed this firsthand in 2015 when I was based there as a freelance journalist.
I’ve rarely heard more shocking horrors in all my years of reporting around the world from Afghanistan to Palestine. I took testimony from locals in remote refugee camps who told me about seeing women and children being burned alive in their tukuls (huts), mass rape against women from the “wrong” tribe, and people slaughtered in hospital beds. From the capital Juba to smaller towns such as Bor and Bentiu, joy at the country’s independence after decades of battling Sudanese forces soon descended into fear, misery, and carnage. Up to 100,000 people may have been murdered since 2013. Washington, a key advocate of South Sudan under both Presidents Bush and Obama, largely disengaged from the country when it fell apart.
With few reporters based permanently in South Sudan, it’s a country that receives relatively little media attention worldwide, not least because it’s easily framed as a brutal African war with little relevance beyond its borders. Western complicity in failed states, from Libya to Iraq to South Sudan, is rarely deemed important enough to warrant extensive investigation in the corporate media. There are notable exceptions, such as the recent New York Times feature on Hillary Clinton’s dismal judgment as secretary of state when backing the disastrous revolution in Libya, leaving a bloodied and broken state to this day.
It’s disappointing but unsurprising that vast swathes of Africa, and the world, are dismissed by the mainstream press. A combination of ignorance, racism, and parochialism renders billions of global citizens invisible. Thankfully there are independent reporters who refuse to solely report on the latest United States presidential campaign machinations and venture beyond the wire. Anand Gopal and Matthieu Aikins are just two fine examples of journalists who understand the term “embedding” to mean more than traveling with United States troops in a war zone; they spend months and years with the civilians caught up in the midst of hellish conditions.
United States journalist Nick Turse is equally committed to this mission. His 2013 best-selling book on the Vietnam War, Kill Anything That Moves, detailing American atrocities during the conflict and military attempts to cover them up, revealed startling new information that had been buried or suppressed for decades. Turse’s chosen technique was to listen to Vietnamese victims and their American perpetrators.
In his latest book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, he delivers a scathing and deeply reported account of South Sudan’s suffering since its collapse in December 2013. “I had landed in a place [unlike my work in Vietnam] where history was being made and I was going to do my best to report on a different kind of war victim,” he writes. “This time, it was going to be displaced people trapped by the thousands on United Nations bases that had become almost like open-air prisons.” In the last two and a half years, roughly 200,000 South Sudanese civilians have lived under United Nations protection in camps around the country because they feared for their lives from marauding government troops and opposition fighters.
Turse operates like a detective, speaking to as many voices as possible (and thankfully, unlike many reporters, he mostly eschews official spokespeople because he knows they’re programmed to deceive). The culture of impunity that permeates South Sudan is richly explained. When Turse asks a Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) judge advocate general about 100 soldiers arrested in February 2014 for involvement in targeted killings, and why they all miraculously escaped the following month, he’s simply told, “there was heavy fighting so everybody escaped.” A senior United Nations official tells Turse: “These guys are good. The South Sudanese are quite adept at the art of delay.”
After decades of ethnic cleansing and war, Turse writes that before the 2013 explosion,
South Sudan remained an infant state of submerged rage and deep suspicion filled with desperately poor people, lacking infrastructure, possessing only a sea of oil [the country is blessed and cursed with huge oil reserves] and too many men skilled in little beyond guerilla warfare. In other words, it was a powder keg with when, not if, stamped on it.
Turse rightly argues that little has changed since to avoid another bloodbath.
This is a fine book of reportage that meticulously details a catalog of horrors unleashed against civilians. He interviews Martha, a woman who was forced to flee with her children from Bor in December 2013. She recounts fleeing to the Nile River with armed Nuer rebels behind them. “I saw someone being shot,” she says. “First his head was there and then it wasn’t.” Martha survived after wading toward an overburdened ferry and keeping her children above water. Many were not so lucky and perished by gunfire.
Turse’s persistence in South Sudan is never rewarded with hard evidence of war crimes — “I take it as personal failure that I couldn’t verify even one site in or around Juba where corpses were secreted away” — but he skillfully describes a country on the brink of constant chaos. He challenges the United States to take responsibility for partially creating the mess but laments the likely option: “will [the United States] take an easier road — one that silences the guns of today only to have them ring out anew with even greater fury at the dawn of some distant tomorrow — or perhaps even sooner?”
The fracturing of South Sudan, along political, ethnic, and social lines, has led to an NGO-isation of the country. While the United Nations and countless humanitarian organizations provide essential services to the literally millions of civilians who need it — food, shelter, hygiene lessons, and basic education — the result is that international (and mostly unelected) bodies are taking responsibility for the running of a nation. If they all packed up and left tomorrow the situation would undoubtedly deteriorate on the ground, but too few people are asking what this situation says about modern state-making and who picks up the bill.
When a nation collapses, aid groups rush in to help and often provide lifesaving assistance (though this is routinely mismanaged). South Sudan is a grim example of a country that was given billions of dollars of United States support before and after 2011, and yet virtually none of those funds went to building sustainable institutions. Men with histories of violence (including Dinka President Salva Kiir and Nuer Vice President Riek Machar) were supported despite having no experience in running democratic institutions.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, successive Washington administrations, NGOs, and evangelical Christians began strongly backing the Christian South Sudanese against Islamic Sudan, a state that had received Iranian support and protected Osama bin Laden. They didn’t care about the human rights abusers in Juba who were just as brutal as those residing in Khartoum. The chances of South Sudan succeeding after 2011 were miniscule.
Turse travels around the country and hears civilians condemn both Kiir and Machar; their forces have been found by the United Nations and human rights groups to have committed horrendous war crimes, and yet nobody is held to account. A recent article in The New York Times, allegedly by both men, claimed to support reconciliation instead of human rights accountability, but it now appears the piece was written by a PR firm. I was constantly told by refugees in South Sudan last year that they hated how Kiir and Machar were feted in global capitals as peacemakers when they were war criminals.
With child soldiers a ubiquitous sight, the Obama Administration had a unique opportunity to respond. Instead, as Turse has reported for The Intercept and this book, the United States gave South Sudan a pass and chose to continue backing the new state politically and militarily. United States presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has avoided being asked tough questions on her central role in this mess. Today, journalists and civilians continue to suffer around the nation despite a faltering peace deal signed in 2015 and enacted this year.
With countless nations arming and training South Sudanese forces, including Sudan, Israel, and China, indefinite instability is guaranteed. The tragedy of South Sudan, apart from the constant suffering of civilians forced to survive a meager existence, is the lack of global concern. Success is far easier to support and 2011 independence saw an outpouring of well wishes. Today, however, Juba has squandered those positive feelings and created an autocracy where the voices of average men, women, and children are ignored and their pleas for justice shunned.
Turse’s book is a necessary and moving corrective to these silences.
Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based independent journalist, Guardian columnist, and author of many books, including his latest, Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe (Verso, 2015).
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.