Israeli settlers: patriots or criminals?

One of the major obstacles that stand in the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis is the issue of Israeli settlements, colonies built in a territory that, according to Resolution 181 adopted in 1947 by the UN General Assembly and subsequent texts belongs to a (painfully still inexistent) Palestinian state. According to estimates, today about half a million Jews live as settlers in the more than 140 illegal settlements (so declared by the International Court of Justice) set up by Israel in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.


Before the twentieth century, the presence of Jews in Palestine was residual. With the rise of Zionism, a large number of groups of Jewish immigrants moved and settled there. The coup de grace (apart, obviously, from the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration) came in 1947, when the newly created United Nations approved the partition of Palestine, divided into 55% of the land for the Jews and 45 % for the Arab population, even though the Jewish population accounted for a mere 6% of the total population. In 1948, Israel declared its independence, without defining its borders which, after the war of 1947-1948, would delimit 78% of the land. This percentage, especially after the War of 1967, has kept growing until today. One consequence of the War of 1967 was the creation of what Jews call the “Greater Jerusalem”, which spread to include the surrounding areas of the West Bank where Palestinians were less numerous. The Israelis made this “new” Jerusalem its capital. Since then, Israel has established several illegal settlements in the “Greater Jerusalem”, artificially creating a Jewish majority.
It was also after the Six Day War when a huge number of Israeli citizens, fill with pride, started applying for land captured in the conflict: East Jerusalem, Kfar Etzion, near Bethlehem, the ancient city of Hebron… All territories in the auctioned lot had been, at some point, historical Jewish settlements and were thus intimately connected with the Bible. It was the land, people said, that should never be returned. On the other side were the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights in Syria and the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip captured from Egypt. For security reasons, this was the land that could not be returned. And then there was the case of the settlements in Samaria, north of the West Bank, with a negligible proportion of Arabs living in places like Ramallah, Nablus and Tulkarem. Israeli political leaders saw the area as a bargaining chip with which could push Jordan to sign a peace treaty key for decades-long and still lasting stability between both countries.
It is ironic that settlers do live in settlements under a long lease term, contingent on any future peace agreement. This is the condition that all settlers must abide by, whether they are aware of it or not, independently of their disagreeing with it, the reality is that they have permanent resident status and are unable to change their status or ownership of the land. Beginning in the 1970s, and aware of their precarious situation, Israeli settlers resorted to techniques used by Zionist pioneers in the years 1920-1940. First, they sowed”facts on the ground”, ie settled in the concerned territories, and then they got the official permission that would acknowledge the existence of their communities. Most of the times, it was the very settlers, thanks to their great abilities of organization and logistics, the ones to play a key role in everything related to settlement activities that the government would later sanction and protest, although most of the time only de facto. The first efforts in this direction had been frustrated by the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, rejected the mantra “Eretz Yisrael” in 1948, claiming he preferred the community (in a smaller territory) over the whole country (with Arabs in it). But, thanks in particular to the pressure exerted by Ariel Sharon and then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin finally relented and allowed the settlers to stay. That was the beginning of the end, and the rest is history. Currently, 40% of the West Bank is inaccessible to Palestinians, who are not allowed to reside in these blocks or surrounding areas, and are also not allowed to travel through the safety zones around them (the “ghost town” of Hebron is a creepy example of it).
The first thing I should point out is that they are called settlements, but in reality they are true cities and not small towns inhabited by tens or hundreds of settlers, which also exist but do not interfere that much in peace. The most outrageous cases are settlements like Ariel or Maale Adummin, built for political reasons and not with an urban or housing hidden agenda, which cause major political dilemmas for moderates within the Israeli Government (if that exists). The settlements of Ariel and Qedumin, for example, are built on the western mountain aquifer, directly in the center of the agricultural districts of the northern West Bank, while Har Homa and Maale Adummin form a belt around the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem East, thereby isolating the Muslim neighborhoods from the West Bank.
Interestingly enough, settlement construction was driven not only for ideological reasons, but also with an economic motivation, especially in the case of settlements whose establishment was accompanied by the allocation of generous perks designed to attract not that affluent settlers with the promise of a better quality of life. The colonies are a business that nowadays nobody is willing to give away. According to figures from the Israeli Interior Ministry, settlers receive 22% more aid than other socioeconomic disadvantaged citizens. It is also estimated that the policy of settlements has had a cost of about 7,500 million euros. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, three quarters of the settlers admit they did not move there for religious reasons. They wanted a subsidized house and good public services. Many believe that the borders are secure, there are good schools and medical equipment and yeah, also think these communities exclusively breathes true Israeli spirit, uncontaminated by other customs. 360,000 settlers (75%) are ultra-Orthodox, Extremists actually represent a minority of the settlers, and in theory should not be significant enough in number to be able to oppose government action. However, their political and symbolic influence is disproportionate – as is their willingness to defend their convictions to the end, something that alarms even the Israeli armed forces. And while most of the six million citizens of Israel are opposed to illegal settlements, few are convinced it will one day be possible to achieve their evacuation and subsequent demolition.
Palestinians seek recognition of a state defined by the borders that existed between Israel and the West Bank, controlled mostly by Jordan before the Six Day War. Given the rigidity of Israel and the above policy of faits acquis, however, any peace process will need to refer to adjustments to take into account the areas where large concentrations of settlers live now. That land will be exchanged for land on the Israeli side of the border, which will be granted to Palestine. That is the main novelty referred to the recently renewed peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League and announced with great fanfare by the U.S. and Qatar. The problem is that at least 160,000 settlers will be out of the blocks that are going to be marketed with Israel, leaving them adrift in theory – an archipelago of communities in the sea of ​​Palestine. Many of them will not go without a fight. “People talk of violent resistance when the settlements in Gaza were evacuated,” said Dani Dayan, former chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ political organization and personal adviser of Binyamin Netanyahu, referring to the evacuation of 2,005 settlers ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces. “If they think evicting 8,000 people in Gaza was difficult, wait until you try to evict 160,000”. That is why many are convinced that the West Bank settlements are “irreversible.” Ordering their eviction by force, claims the representative, “would break the backbone of Israeli society, and any minimally responsible Israeli Prime Minister will never be willing to do it.” At least not without paying a high price. Hundreds of Israeli settlers take for granted that successive Israeli coalition governments remain indebted (and therefore obliged to yield to their demands) to small parties within the pro-settler right, as well as to religious parties that are increasingly engaged with the idea that Israel should occupy the whole territory.
Leaving aside the 200,000 Israelis who live in parts of Jerusalem captured from Jordan in 1967, analysts estimate that the 300,000 Israeli settlers scattered throughout the West Bank can be divided into three main categories: those who simply chose a better quality of life (about 150,000), found in settlements very close to the Green Line, close enough to take advantage of generous government subsidies and living in homes they could not afford in Israel; the nationalists (perhaps 20,000), most of them rather secular, who see the occupation of the territory as a contribution to the state; and religious patriots (also nationalists) that share a vision of a historical and biblical Israel they long to recover. The latter are religious fanatics who are constantly growing in number and intensity. Of the dozen who first settled in some areas considered by their version of History as forever Jewish, for example Hebron and Gush Etzion, today around 130,000 represent this branch. Their birth rate is four times higher than that of secular settlers, and their commitment to both faith and the precepts of their rabbis, is unwavering. Based on the original Zionist pioneering spirit, they do and will entrench in the territory and see themselves as advocates of a Jewish beachhead against Arabs they always consider hostile and violent (in fact, they do not like using the term “Palestinian”, that somehow undermine their argument) and even against their own government. They cling to the idea that in a few decades they will have built a Jewish religious majority over all the ancient Palestine, and then there will be no place for a Palestinian state.
What’s the argumentation of these patriot settlers? A report by the UN Human Rights Council said in January that Israeli settlements violate human rights and could thus be prosecuted for war crimes before the International Criminal Court (last December recognition of the status of Palestine as a non-member observer state before the UN raised high hopes in this regard). However, a large majority believe they are in their country and vaunt their patriotism. As noted, these settlers are now one of the largest and most powerful political movements in the Israeli landscape. Many of them admit privately that there is no room for the two-state solution and are in fact satisfied with the status quo. Those settlers recognize, however, that the objectives of both peoples are irreconcilable, because they are based on completely incompatible narratives, and ultimately the two are vying for the same territory.
One of the lines that their reasoning follows states “everything we catch will remain ours before any forthcoming negotiations”. The ancient Palestine is the Promised Land of the Jews, “the Biblical land of milk and honey”, and therefore the natural extension of today’s Israeli territory. Abraham entered into a sacred covenant with God, who pledged that area to the chosen people, the Jews. These patriots claim to live in the heart of Israel, Judea and Samaria, those territories the world calls the West Bank. According to them, the distinction made by the rest of the world is merely legal and does not conform to historical reality, in which the natural boundary coincides with the west bank of the Jordan River. They therefore have the moral and political right to live and build in those areas, activities that have nothing to do with imperialism and expansionism. They believe that the mention of the settlement is a mere pretext for the Palestinians not to negotiate. Settlement construction is also necessary for safety, fearing annihilation by Arab states surrounding them. The settlements, then, emerge as a solution, as it strengthens their security. They believe that peace will come when the perception is that Israel can no longer be defeated. Settlements are not therefore an obstacle to peace, but rather the opposite: they strengthen the perception of being part of a strong country and therefore feel closer to peace. Given the frequent attacks of the international community, they completely reject the argument of illegality, and argue that the Geneva Conventions (Article 49 of the Fourth Convention on the Prohibition of “deportations, transfers and evacuations” and Article 47 on the “inviolability of rights of the people “) do not apply to the occupied territories (that is the argument the Levy Report goes by, a text coincidentally written by Alan Baker, a settler in Jerusalem).
What about the Palestinian version? In that sense, no negotiations can move forward while settlement building is not completely halted and the future of the settlers is decided, mainly through the principle of land swaps. To illustrate their argument, they argue that the location of these settlements is particularly relevant, since their maintenance will make the two-state solution virtually impossible to achieve, eliminating any connection between East Jerusalem, which they also consider their capital, and the West Bank. Also, and this is a point that we should never forget, the existence of Israeli settlements in Palestine actually compromises security, as evidenced by the continuous attacks that settlers, outrageously allowed to carry weapons, carry out against Palestinians, including children (an example here). And last but not least, there are many who claim that the Palestinians have been suffering for decades from a situation equivalent to the South African apartheid, deprived of basic human rights and devoid of essential resources. At the end of the day, the building of settlements is but one way to divide the Palestinians territorially, to prevent the creation and / or to terminate their infrastructure and to deny that assurance that these assumptions patriots crave. Edward W. Said said that “you can not victimize someone simply because you fell victim once – there must be a limit.” The limit is set in numerous resolutions of both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.
One of the major obstacles that stand in the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis is the issue of Israeli settlements, colonies built in a territory that, according to Resolution 181 adopted in 1947 by the UN General Assembly and subsequent texts belongs to a (painfully still inexistent) Palestinian state. According to estimates, today about half a million Jews live as settlers in the more than 140 illegal settlements (so declared by the International Court of Justice) set up by Israel in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Before the twentieth century, the presence of Jews in Palestine was residual. With the rise of Zionism, a large number of groups of Jewish immigrants moved and settled there. The coup de grace (apart, obviously, from the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration) came in 1947, when the newly created United Nations approved the partition of Palestine, divided into 55% of the land for the Jews and 45 % for the Arab population, even though the Jewish population accounted for a mere 6% of the total population. In 1948, Israel declared its independence, without defining its borders which, after the war of 1947-1948, would delimit 78% of the land. This percentage, especially after the War of 1967, has kept growing until today. One consequence of the War of 1967 was the creation of what Jews call the “Greater Jerusalem”, which spread to include the surrounding areas of the West Bank where Palestinians were less numerous. The Israelis made this “new” Jerusalem its capital. Since then, Israel has established several illegal settlements in the “Greater Jerusalem”, artificially creating a Jewish majority.
It was also after the Six Day War when a huge number of Israeli citizens, fill with pride, started applying for land captured in the conflict: East Jerusalem, Kfar Etzion, near Bethlehem, the ancient city of Hebron… All territories in the auctioned lot had been, at some point, historical Jewish settlements and were thus intimately connected with the Bible. It was the land, people said, that should never be returned. On the other side were the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights in Syria and the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip captured from Egypt. For security reasons, this was the land that could not be returned. And then there was the case of the settlements in Samaria, north of the West Bank, with a negligible proportion of Arabs living in places like Ramallah, Nablus and Tulkarem. Israeli political leaders saw the area as a bargaining chip with which could push Jordan to sign a peace treaty key for decades-long and still lasting stability between both countries.
It is ironic that settlers do live in settlements under a long lease term, contingent on any future peace agreement. This is the condition that all settlers must abide by, whether they are aware of it or not, independently of their disagreeing with it, the reality is that they have permanent resident status and are unable to change their status or ownership of the land. Beginning in the 1970s, and aware of their precarious situation, Israeli settlers resorted to techniques used by Zionist pioneers in the years 1920-1940. First, they sowed”facts on the ground”, ie settled in the concerned territories, and then they got the official permission that would acknowledge the existence of their communities. Most of the times, it was the very settlers, thanks to their great abilities of organization and logistics, the ones to play a key role in everything related to settlement activities that the government would later sanction and protest, although most of the time only de facto. The first efforts in this direction had been frustrated by the governments of Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. In fact, the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, rejected the mantra “Eretz Yisrael” in 1948, claiming he preferred the community (in a smaller territory) over the whole country (with Arabs in it). But, thanks in particular to the pressure exerted by Ariel Sharon and then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin finally relented and allowed the settlers to stay. That was the beginning of the end, and the rest is history. Currently, 40% of the West Bank is inaccessible to Palestinians, who are not allowed to reside in these blocks or surrounding areas, and are also not allowed to travel through the safety zones around them (the “ghost town” of Hebron is a creepy example of it).
The first thing I should point out is that they are called settlements, but in reality they are true cities and not small towns inhabited by tens or hundreds of settlers, which also exist but do not interfere that much in peace. The most outrageous cases are settlements like Ariel or Maale Adummin, built for political reasons and not with an urban or housing hidden agenda, which cause major political dilemmas for moderates within the Israeli Government (if that exists). The settlements of Ariel and Qedumin, for example, are built on the western mountain aquifer, directly in the center of the agricultural districts of the northern West Bank, while Har Homa and Maale Adummin form a belt around the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem East, thereby isolating the Muslim neighborhoods from the West Bank.
Interestingly enough, settlement construction was driven not only for ideological reasons, but also with an economic motivation, especially in the case of settlements whose establishment was accompanied by the allocation of generous perks designed to attract not that affluent settlers with the promise of a better quality of life. The colonies are a business that nowadays nobody is willing to give away. According to figures from the Israeli Interior Ministry, settlers receive 22% more aid than other socioeconomic disadvantaged citizens. It is also estimated that the policy of settlements has had a cost of about 7,500 million euros. Indeed, according to a survey conducted by B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, three quarters of the settlers admit they did not move there for religious reasons. They wanted a subsidized house and good public services. Many believe that the borders are secure, there are good schools and medical equipment and yeah, also think these communities exclusively breathes true Israeli spirit, uncontaminated by other customs. 360,000 settlers (75%) are ultra-Orthodox, Extremists actually represent a minority of the settlers, and in theory should not be significant enough in number to be able to oppose government action. However, their political and symbolic influence is disproportionate – as is their willingness to defend their convictions to the end, something that alarms even the Israeli armed forces. And while most of the six million citizens of Israel are opposed to illegal settlements, few are convinced it will one day be possible to achieve their evacuation and subsequent demolition.
Palestinians seek recognition of a state defined by the borders that existed between Israel and the West Bank, controlled mostly by Jordan before the Six Day War. Given the rigidity of Israel and the above policy of faits acquis, however, any peace process will need to refer to adjustments to take into account the areas where large concentrations of settlers live now. That land will be exchanged for land on the Israeli side of the border, which will be granted to Palestine. That is the main novelty referred to the recently renewed peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League and announced with great fanfare by the U.S. and Qatar. The problem is that at least 160,000 settlers will be out of the blocks that are going to be marketed with Israel, leaving them adrift in theory – an archipelago of communities in the sea of ​​Palestine. Many of them will not go without a fight. “People talk of violent resistance when the settlements in Gaza were evacuated,” said Dani Dayan, former chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ political organization and personal adviser of Binyamin Netanyahu, referring to the evacuation of 2,005 settlers ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and carried out by the Israeli Defense Forces. “If they think evicting 8,000 people in Gaza was difficult, wait until you try to evict 160,000”. That is why many are convinced that the West Bank settlements are “irreversible.” Ordering their eviction by force, claims the representative, “would break the backbone of Israeli society, and any minimally responsible Israeli Prime Minister will never be willing to do it.” At least not without paying a high price. Hundreds of Israeli settlers take for granted that successive Israeli coalition governments remain indebted (and therefore obliged to yield to their demands) to small parties within the pro-settler right, as well as to religious parties that are increasingly engaged with the idea that Israel should occupy the whole territory.
Leaving aside the 200,000 Israelis who live in parts of Jerusalem captured from Jordan in 1967, analysts estimate that the 300,000 Israeli settlers scattered throughout the West Bank can be divided into three main categories: those who simply chose a better quality of life (about 150,000), found in settlements very close to the Green Line, close enough to take advantage of generous government subsidies and living in homes they could not afford in Israel; the nationalists (perhaps 20,000), most of them rather secular, who see the occupation of the territory as a contribution to the state; and religious patriots (also nationalists) that share a vision of a historical and biblical Israel they long to recover. The latter are religious fanatics who are constantly growing in number and intensity. Of the dozen who first settled in some areas considered by their version of History as forever Jewish, for example Hebron and Gush Etzion, today around 130,000 represent this branch. Their birth rate is four times higher than that of secular settlers, and their commitment to both faith and the precepts of their rabbis, is unwavering. Based on the original Zionist pioneering spirit, they do and will entrench in the territory and see themselves as advocates of a Jewish beachhead against Arabs they always consider hostile and violent (in fact, they do not like using the term “Palestinian”, that somehow undermine their argument) and even against their own government. They cling to the idea that in a few decades they will have built a Jewish religious majority over all the ancient Palestine, and then there will be no place for a Palestinian state.
What’s the argumentation of these patriot settlers? A report by the UN Human Rights Council said in January that Israeli settlements violate human rights and could thus be prosecuted for war crimes before the International Criminal Court (last December recognition of the status of Palestine as a non-member observer state before the UN raised high hopes in this regard). However, a large majority believe they are in their country and vaunt their patriotism. As noted, these settlers are now one of the largest and most powerful political movements in the Israeli landscape. Many of them admit privately that there is no room for the two-state solution and are in fact satisfied with the status quo. Those settlers recognize, however, that the objectives of both peoples are irreconcilable, because they are based on completely incompatible narratives, and ultimately the two are vying for the same territory.
One of the lines that their reasoning follows states “everything we catch will remain ours before any forthcoming negotiations”. The ancient Palestine is the Promised Land of the Jews, “the Biblical land of milk and honey”, and therefore the natural extension of today’s Israeli territory. Abraham entered into a sacred covenant with God, who pledged that area to the chosen people, the Jews. These patriots claim to live in the heart of Israel, Judea and Samaria, those territories the world calls the West Bank. According to them, the distinction made by the rest of the world is merely legal and does not conform to historical reality, in which the natural boundary coincides with the west bank of the Jordan River. They therefore have the moral and political right to live and build in those areas, activities that have nothing to do with imperialism and expansionism. They believe that the mention of the settlement is a mere pretext for the Palestinians not to negotiate. Settlement construction is also necessary for safety, fearing annihilation by Arab states surrounding them. The settlements, then, emerge as a solution, as it strengthens their security. They believe that peace will come when the perception is that Israel can no longer be defeated. Settlements are not therefore an obstacle to peace, but rather the opposite: they strengthen the perception of being part of a strong country and therefore feel closer to peace. Given the frequent attacks of the international community, they completely reject the argument of illegality, and argue that the Geneva Conventions (Article 49 of the Fourth Convention on the Prohibition of “deportations, transfers and evacuations” and Article 47 on the “inviolability of rights of the people “) do not apply to the occupied territories (that is the argument the Levy Report goes by, a text coincidentally written by Alan Baker, a settler in Jerusalem).
What about the Palestinian version? In that sense, no negotiations can move forward while settlement building is not completely halted and the future of the settlers is decided, mainly through the principle of land swaps. To illustrate their argument, they argue that the location of these settlements is particularly relevant, since their maintenance will make the two-state solution virtually impossible to achieve, eliminating any connection between East Jerusalem, which they also consider their capital, and the West Bank. Also, and this is a point that we should never forget, the existence of Israeli settlements in Palestine actually compromises security, as evidenced by the continuous attacks that settlers, outrageously allowed to carry weapons, carry out against Palestinians, including children (an example here). And last but not least, there are many who claim that the Palestinians have been suffering for decades from a situation equivalent to the South African apartheid, deprived of basic human rights and devoid of essential resources. At the end of the day, the building of settlements is but one way to divide the Palestinians territorially, to prevent the creation and / or to terminate their infrastructure and to deny that assurance that these assumptions patriots crave. Edward W. Said said that “you can not victimize someone simply because you fell victim once – there must be a limit.” The limit is set in numerous resolutions of both the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.

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