Friday, July 3, 2009

Settlers and Outposts

No one could have planned the fact that we visited Israeli settlements on the very day that the President of the United States would deliver a speech calling for the cessation of any new construction of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. A sense of anger and betrayal on the part of Jewish settlers aimed at the United States was certainly felt, at least by me, as our day progressed. According to them, the President's call for a two-state solution revealed his ignorance regarding the history, both political and biblical, of the Jewish presence in the Levant.

"The Arabs don't want peace" was a phrase we heard continuously from settlers throughout the West Bank. "If you accept a car ride from an Arab, you risked death" came from a settler who used to live in the United States. The first settlement we toured was almost identical to a normal American suburb, but protected by a barbed wire fence and an armed guard. There, most of us got our first glimpse into the mind of an Israeli settler, a woman who emigrated to Israel from the United States. A self-proclaimed left-wing activist in American politics, she was involved in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, environmental advocacy, and was part of the movement for women's equality several decades ago. On the surface, she was pleasant, open-minded, and progressive. All of that was out the window when she began to speak about the Palestinians and her decision to live in "Judea and Sumaria."

From her, we heard the two main arguments justifying Israeli occupation and Israeli settlement in the West Bank. Number one, because the Old Testament says so. Jews have lived in Israel for thousands of years and they deserve a homeland supposedly guaranteed to them by God himself. This land includes all of Israel proper and the Palestinian territories. Number two, the Palestinians are violent savages and have no place in "Judea and Sumaria." It is important to note here that not once did I hear any Jewish settlers refer to the West Bank as the West Bank, as most of the world knows it today, but rather by the Bibical term "Judea and Sumaria."

Number three, the Palestinian territories are not really the Palestinian territories. There is no green line. International law is non-binding, and therefore not need be enforced by the Israeli government. There are many other Arab countries in the world, so the Palestinians should pick up and move to either Jordan or Egypt, both neighboring countries. This is all part of the same line of reasoning, if you can call it that. This is the anti-Arab narrative that justifies the illegal settlement of 300,000 Israelis in the West Bank. God gave this land to the Jews, not the Palestinians, so the Israelis are free to live wherever they please. Nevermind the historical realities of mass Palestinian displacement and Palestinian life under a suffocating occupation.

Unfortunately, the day didn't get much better from there in terms of discovering a moderate approach to the conflict. Next was a settlement that had grown into what was essentiall a city in the West Bank. Before I came to Israel, I pictured settlements as a few trailers scattered around a small school on some remote hill in the middle of nowhere. There's nothing quite like seeing something for yourself to make you understand what's really going on. The college we visited there had around 10,000 students. That's just students. Tens of thousands of more Israelis resided there. Inside we saw a presentation titled something to the effect of "The Benefits of Zionism," illustrating the school's achievements and its endorsement by current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That in itself pointed to the Israeli government's support of West Bank settlements.

Next was a pre-military academy whose purpose is to train young Israeli men before their compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force. This was not a military academy, but both instructors deemed it necassary to carry semi-automatic pistols. Why? In case they encountered a Palestinian. During a small lecture one of them gave to the group, his entire argument was centered around Biblical text. This is Jewish land because "It is written....It is written." To me, that sounds a lot like bin Laden saying that since Islamic text prohibits "no two religions in Arabia" it's permitted to knock down a few buildings. American presence in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War violated holy text, which justified 9/11 from his standpoint. When someone takes religious text as absolute, literal, and uncompromising, what room is left for debate? You can't counter the word of God. There is no space for negotiation if God gave Judea and Sumaria to the Jews. And that was that.

The rest of the day was more of the same, with religious fundamentalism trumping any concern for the plight of the Palestinians. At a small outpost consisting mainly of trailers and simple buildings, I heard one woman say, "We have nothing against the Arabs." Well, they have something against you. You are living on private Palestinian land that was never yours to take. However, Biblical interpretation wins out over the rights of the Palestinians who "...never developed the land in the first place." I thought about this and came up with an analogy. If I bought a house, but left the basement unfinished for whatever reason, should I be forced to let a stranger move into my basement and live for free? Should I be forced to eventually migrate up to the attic and give up my kitchen, bedroom, and living room to these new-comers who need space for their growing families? Unfortunately, none of that matters to Israeli settlers because God said so.

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