This is not going to be a history of the Settlement movement (to our collective relief I'm sure), but let us take a quick trip back to the heady days of 1967. The Six Day War had been won, the Old City of Jerusalem had been annexed and it was time for a political reckoning.
I think there is a misconception that the Settler movement is the crazed love child of rabid right wing zealots and God; it isn't. It was under a Labour government that the settlers began to move into the West Bank and it was that government with a sly nod and a wink, that said 'Off you go, we won the war, so there's nothing to stop you.''
Winning the war and annexing the Old City linked modern day Israel directly to its Old Testament past and a precedent was now set for future settlements, usually backed up with useful scriptural quote.
In 1968, Hebron was occupied by settlers and it was a Labour politician, Yigal Allon, who visited Hebron and said
There have always been Jews in Hebron, the cradle of the nation, until they were violently uprooted...It is inconceivable that Jews be prohibited from settling in this ancient town of the patriarchs[quote]
All this is best summed up by Abba Eban, who by and large, strikes me as an eminently sensible man,with a large degree of insight; 1967 was a turning point in Israeli history because it saw ''a sudden passing from vulnerability to omnipotence'' and ''produced an intoxication...''
Eban, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time, explained that although 1967 and its aftermath was a military salvation, with massive political gains it was a total psychological failure, because the victory was interpreted providentially and messianically.
Once it became a messianic thing, the government and parliament were no longer sovereign
Which brings us to now. A couple of weeks ago I visited Hebron, courtesy of the Alternative Tourist Group, which as its name implies gives an alternative and to my mind, more accurate and realistic view of what's happening on the ground in the West Bank.
There are dozens of settlements on the West Bank, with thousands of inhabitants; some are economic settlers, those who want a cheap home, with good schools and facilities for their families. The majority are ideological, there because the Old Testament tells them they are re populating the ancient land of Judea and Samaria (and the government makes it financially attractive). Settlers have been tolerated because they speak to a wider feeling held in Israeli society, something that harks back to the days of the early pioneers who arrived as a people without a land in a land without a people.
Most settlements occupy the high ground (at least physically if neither morally or legally)- ridges and hills that look down on Palestinian villages, towns and cities. Hebron is different, because it is in the heart of the old city, where the streets are too narrow to allow anything bigger than a donkey or handcart to pass and settlers have taken over the buildings above the shops. As a result, the shopkeepers have had to erect a metal cage above their heads, as the settlers drop rocks, household waste and in more imaginative moments, so I was told, shit and piss onto the heads of passersby below.
Hebron is a large city, the largest on the West Bank with a population of 165,000 Palestinians, 500 or so settlers (based in the old city and the settlement of Kiryat Arba) and something approaching 2,000 soldiers, there ostensibly to protect those settlers from the wrath of the Palestinians. It is the city of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, home and the last resting place of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca and their son, Jacob, which makes it a holy site for both Jews and Muslims with a fair sprinkling of Christians thrown in for good measure.
The West Bank is divided into three areas, A, B and C. A is ostensibly under the direct control of the Palestinian Authority, B is under joint Palestinian and Israeli military control and C is under sole Israeli control. Hebron is divided into H1 and H2. H1 equates to Area A and H2 corresponds to Area C. This demarcation was introduced in 1997, three years after Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Arba, ran amok with a machine gun, killing 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahim mosque and wounding dozens more, before he in turn was killed by a mob. Goldstein is now a poster boy for the Settler Movement at large.
As I said earlier, Hebron is a large city and was once a prosperous city. No longer. Restriction of movement, curfews, closure of business' and the creation no go areas for Palestinians have seen the city decline. Needles to say, settlers have carte blanche to go where they like and seemingly to do what they like, without let or hindrance.
Aeyal Gross, Haaretz
Jews in the Territories, even when they riot and use violence against Palestinians or the army, are usually accorded what amounts to immunity by both the military and judicial establishments
Take a walk along Shuhada Street, once the bustling heart of Palestinian Hebron. Apart from the army controlling access to the mosque and synagogue and armed settlers taking a stroll down to the supermarket. If I understand correctly, Christians, but only Internationals (that's someone like me) can come along here, Jews from where ever they may hail (but not necessarily all Israeli citizens as 20% of them are non Jewish) are welcome, but no Palestinian (including Christians) and no International Muslims.
Whilst walking along Shuhada Street I bumped into a trio of middling age Israeli women and we had some lunch together. They were from an organisation called Machsomwatch,
a movement of Israeli women, peace activists from all sectors of Israeli society, who oppose the Israeli occupation and the denial of Palestinians' rights to move freely in their land. Since 2001, we have conducted daily observations of IDF checkpoints in the West Bank, along the separation fence and in the seamline zone, on the main roads and on out-of-the-way dirt roads, as well as in the offices of the Civil Administration (DCOs) and in military courts. We regularly document what we see and hear. The reports of these observations are published on the Machsomwatch site, and sent to public officials and elected representatives. Through the documentation which discloses the nature of everyday reality, we are attempting to influence public opinion in the country and in the world, and thus to bring to an end the destructive occupation, which causes damage to Israeli society as well as to Palestinian society.
They were an impressive threesome - they didn't think they were doing any thing exceptional or out of the ordinary, their main motivation it seemed to me, was that somebody from Israel needed to say
What is happening here is wrong and we will not tolerate it any more
The reason that settlers and the settlements are in the news so much at the moment is that they have gone and blotted their collective copybook, which is quite an achievement in a country, where to an interested observer, it seems that being a settler grants you immunity from prosecution for almost anything. It's like having a Get Out Jail card, but without ever having to do the jail bit.
Last month 50 or so, and here we have a wealth of description to choose from - 'activist' 'hilltop youth' 'misguided youths' 'anarchists' - nothing more than a 'radical element' within the wider settler community - chose your own euphemism, and many did - attacked an IDF post, injuring the Deputy Commander of the Ephraim Brigade.
Gideon Levy, who writes for Haaretz and is not everybody's cup of tea, although he is certainly mine, wrote a piece called -
GOOD MORNING, ISRAEL
Good Morning, Israel. You've woken up. Years of rioting against Palestinians, uprooting of trees, vandalism, arson, destruction, dispossession, theft...but one rock to the head of a deputy brigade commander, Lt Col Tzur Harpaz, made all the difference. An all out riot. Jewish terrorism. There are militias in the West Bank, settler-terrorists in a no man's land. And all this due to a rock that drew a few drops of sacred Jewish blood.
He goes on to say
You can't chastise those young people after years of not only apathy toward their parents misdeeds but also the warm embrace of most of society and sweeping support from the IDF and every Israeli government. You can't speak about them as brotheer - pioneers, give them huge budget allocations, promise they'll be allowed to remain where they are for ever, view them a slegitimate, not to say principled, segment of society, and then suddenly turn your back on them, condemning and attacking them. And all due to a rock... The violent demonstartions at the Ephraim Brigade base are the opposite of anarchists, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called them. They just want to preserve the existing order, just as most Israelis, led by the Prime Minister, do...
When something like this happens, the IDF being attacked by fellow Jews, you don't want to be left standing on the sidelines with condemnation
Rightist group Im Tirtzu also condemned the attack and called to punish those responsible We call for the investigation and severe punishment of those people who adopted the ways of Arab terrorists and activists from the extreme left (my italics), a statement said
With a certain amount of schadenfreude, Gush Shalom, the Israeli peace bloc, took out this ad in Israeli papers:
b]PALESTINIAN DEMONSTRATORS ARE BEING SHOT
IN THE FACE OF RAMPAGING SETTLERS,
THE ARMY DID NOT MAKE EVEN A SINGLE ARREST.
FOR 44 YEARS, THE IDF HAS PAMPERED THE SETTLERS
AND ENABLED THEM TO MISTREAT THE PALESTINIANS.
NOW THE GOLEM
TURNS ON ITS CREATOR
And, if you are in any doubt where Gush Shalom stand on the threat of the settlers, you can find this on their website:
Settler leader Katzover no longer pretends to support democracy
Benny Katzover, one of the founders and prominent leaders of the settler movement, takes off all masks. He declares himself in clear and unambiguous words to be a sworn enemy of democracy, striving to dismantle and destroy the democratic regime in Israel and replace it with a "Jewish" dictatorship of a nationalist – theocratic – racist character. Katzover no longer sees any need to pay even lip service to democracy, as he and his friends did for many years. He now speaks openly and brazenly, without apprehension of being hurt by this candor. He sees and feels that the liquidation of democracy has now become a tangible and realistic option on the Israeli public agenda.
Finally, with a piece of bad timing that's hard to credit, some rabbis from the West Bank released a letter to the Jerusalem Post:
WEST BANK RABBIS: ALLOW LIVE FIRE AT STONE THROWERS
Anyone who faces a danger to their life, including being pelted by stones or other dangers, must be allowed to open fire against the attackers without having to worry about being tried or having their weapon confiscated
This was written in support of members of the IDF or settlers who open fire on, and kill protesting Palestinians and this followed the death of a young Palestinian protester called Mustapha Tamim at a place called Nabi Saleh. Once the attack took place on the IDF by the settlers, it wasn't long before accusations of double standards were to be heard, from all sides, including Israelis.
The wild eyed, extremist settler youth who set mosques alight and have now started to attack IDF soldiers are indeed terrorists, and need to be hunted down as such
Jeff Barak, Former Editor in Chief of Jerusalem Post - quoted in same
The restraint of the brigade commander and his deputy (who came under attack) is worthy of praise... But if I was in the position of the deputy commander and they were throwing bricks at my head and endangering my life, I would shoot them. You shoot terrorists.
Uri Saguy, Former head of Military Intelligence
I personally saw the people, the rioters, that threw stones at our soldiers and commanders. I have not seen such hatred of Jews towards soldiers during my 30 years of service
Maj Gen Avi Mizrahi, OC Central Command
The reason settlers are important is that successive Israeli governments have encouraged them covertly, by simply ignoring their excesses and in many instances, criminal behaviour or, like in the case of the present government actively encouraged the expansion of settlements in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1993 there were 116,000 settlers in the West Bank; by 2011 that figure had risen to 300,000 and that doesn't include the thousands of settlers in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian areas are coming under increased pressure from government and hard core settlers.
Land here is finite and the land being used for illegal settlements is land that Palestinian leaders want to use for a future Palestinian state. Israel rejects those claims and the settlers take that as encouragement to take more and more of what doesn't belong to them.
Recently I stayed in Bethlehem with a Palestinian family who live across the valley from an Israeli settlement. Some years ago, whilst one of the daughters was at home alone, machine gun fire from the settlement hit the house. The gunfire wasn't aimed at the house specifically, it was random and hit several homes in the street. The family returned home to find the young girl traumatised by her experience, to such an extent that almost a decade on, she has behavioural problems, learning difficulties and a speech impairment.
Her father, a veteran human rights activist, is almost philosophical now. In the past he has been humiliated and attacked by soldiers and settlers, but this will not stop him from saying what is happening to him, his family and people is wrong.
In his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman from the New York Times used a quote to describe Lebanese factional politics -
When I am weak how can I compromise?When I am strong, why should I compromise?
and I fear this, is the situation the Palestinians find themselves in now. They may have growing international opinion on their side but Israel holds all the cards and it holds the American ace up its sleeve, particularly in an election year.
Settlers are a group convinced that what they do is God's will. They feel both right and righteous and I fear this makes them particularly dangerous. When all is said and done, the problem is quite simple -
Israel wants all the land while the Palestinians want some of the land. It is no longer an issue of security. If Israel is not secure now, when will it ever be?
It is they, the settlers, with government connivance, who are setting the political agenda in the West Bank and until the issue of the settlements is resolved, there is no prospect of peace in this wretched country.
I was taught always to see all sides of the argument, to be balanced, especially when talking about politics and religion. Always allow the other side the right of reply, give them a chance to put their side of the story. It seems to me that the Palestinian story is getting harder to tell, whilst the Israeli version is accepted without very few, if any questions asked. There is a difference between being balanced and being fair and from now on fairness wins.