Israeli squatters on Palestinian land continue to be a major roadblock to peace.
Last month, Omar Hushiyeh, a 28-year-old Palestinian from the village of Khirbet al-Markez in the South Hebron Hills, was grazing sheep on his family’s land when he was suddenly attacked and beaten by three Jewish settlers.
“I was walking behind the sheep, not paying attention to anything in particular. Suddenly, someone pushed me from behind and I fell down. When I tried to get up, I saw three masked men. I could see that one of them had payot (side curls worn by Orthodox Jewish men),” Hushiyeh said in a statement to the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem.
Incidents like these are frequently documented by rights groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and B’Tselem, but only about 10 percent of attacks have resulted in convictions. In Hushiyeh’s case, there were no arrests or convictions because the Israel Defense Force (IDF) responding to the scene says that the assailants escaped and their identities are unknown.
“One of them stepped on my back. He pinned me down hard and wouldn’t let me get up. Then he started punching me in my head and face. Another guy picked up a stone that was lying there and hit me with it in the back of my head, a few times. I tried to resist and to protect my head with my hands, but they were too strong.” He was taken to the hospital where he received 5 stitches on his head.
Incidents like these have grown more common with the proliferation of illegal Jewish settlements and outposts throughout the West Bank. Violence is on the rise, exacerbating the effects of the Israeli military occupation that has resulted in the destruction of 28,000 Palestinian homes, businesses and livestock facilities since 1967, according to figures published by the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition.
Set against the backdrop of increasing settler violence is the latest round of peace talks that opened last week.
As talks opened with pessimistic predictions from both sides, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the green light to build 1,200 new settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, a decision expected to put a damper on negotiations brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
He claims that the settlements shouldn’t be a bar to peace, but with over 500,000 illegal Jewish settlers scattered throughout the 125 settlements and 100 outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Palestinian territory, the heart of the proposed Palestinian state, hopes for peace appear dim for observers in the international community.
“Settlement construction remains the biggest single threat to the two-state solution. It is systematic, deliberate and provocative,” reads a report from European Union officials earlier this year.
Since 1967, the Palestinians have seen the West Bank slowly become populated by Jewish-only settlements, illegal under international law and the main hindrance to a two-state solution in accordance with the internationally recognized pre-June 1967 borders.
There are now roughly half a million Jewish settlers living throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem and several thousand more living in the annexed Golan Heights, according to recent reports from CBS news. Much has been reported about the peace process, but who are the settlers and what compels them to take land that Palestinians claim as the backbone of their future state?
The Gush Emunim movement “The settlement movement started in 1967 following the Six Day War. This was supported by the labor government and by Golda Meir, before Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977,” said professor Dan Arbell, scholar in residence at American University, in a statement to Mint Press News.
The settlements were originally supported by the labor government of Levi Eshkol after the 1967 war through its Allon plan.
Although the Allon plan called for the occupation of the West Bank as a means to expand Israel for security purposes, it was the subsequent Gush Emunim, or “bloc of the faithful” movement of religious settlers that gave the early settlements their religious character in the aftermath of the 1967 war that saw Israel capture the West Bank from Jordan.
“The first wave of settlers were more ideologues, those who believed that their forefathers walked those areas, lived in those areas, worshipped in those areas. That would explain the first wave of settlers during the first decade from 1967-1977,” Arbell said.
Some religious Israeli nationalists saw this event as an opportunity to expand the borders of Israel and live on land they say was given to the Jewish people, according to an interpretation of Old Testament scripture. Rabbi Abraham Kook, the spiritual leader of the movement, promoted settlement on the land to what was then a small group of followers. Kook died decades before the first settlement, but contributed to the formation of modern religious Zionist thought.
His son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, and thousands of followers petitioned for territorial compromise, urging the Israeli government to expand support for the settlements.
“The Begin government elected and established in 1977 I think broadened the circle and also gave just incentives for the ordinary Israelis to come and settle those areas. So you had ideologues, people religiously motivated and in the later stages just found quality housing for reasonable prices,” Arbell said.
After struggling with the state for recognition, the first settlement was recognized by the Israeli government in 1974. Construction has continued virtually unabated since that time, save for the occasional settlement freeze.
Some taking a maximalist approach based upon biblical interpretation saw the West Bank and Gaza (known as Judea and Samaria) as part of a Greater Israel envisioning borders stretching from the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to the Euphrates River in modern day Iraq. The settlements have historically been supported by all Israeli governments, both left and right.
“Israeli governments from left and right throughout decades have not accepted the notion that settlements are illegal. Israel does see them as legal,” said Arbell.
In many cases, settlers who move into the West Bank displace Palestinian residents, many have lived in the area for decades. The Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition reports that 28,000 Palestinian homes and structures have been destroyed since the occupation began in 1967. Human rights observers say that it has taken a tremendous toll on communities throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“The demolition of the el-Arabiyeh family home in Anata exceeds all the terrible things I have seen in my 17 years in Rabbis for Human Rights. The sight of a boy or a girl coming back from school and discovering that their house was demolished is something I would not wish my worst enemies to see,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a leading spokesman for Rabbis for Human Rights.
Victims have struggled to recover after losing their family homes with few options after their homes are cleared to make way for new settlements. “Where will we go? We’re refugees,” said one woman who lost her home in the 2011 demolition of Fasayel, a town in the southern Jordan valley. “We lost everything. They brought us a tent that’s from 40 years ago.” In that demolition, the IDF reportedly bulldozed 18 homes, 3 animal shelters and 3 other structures, leaving 18 families homeless and without any source of income.
Others in the town of Susya have repeatedly been threatened with expulsion and denied basic amenities while they wait to hear whether their village will be destroyed. “Everything is forbidden to us. It is forbidden for us to build. Basic human rights are forbidden for us. Electricity is forbidden for us and [running] water as well,” said one resident in a statement to +972.
The Gush Emunim movement is now defunct, but the settlement construction continues, supported by a host of right-wing parties in the Israeli Knesset, including members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s center right Likud party.
Settlers, predictably, are mostly religious, but there are a growing number of mixed or secular settlements that have less pious residents who have been enticed to move through government economic incentives.
The average observer may be surprised to find that a large number of settlers hail from the U.S. or have dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. According to a 2011 report by demographic researcher Sara Hirschhorn, there are 45,000 settlers who have American citizenship, or about 15 percent of the Israeli West Bank population.
So what does this all mean for day-to-day living in the West Bank as the peace process creeps along with little result since the 1993 Oslo accords? The incidents of Palestinian violence against Israelis are well documented. Suicide bombings and Hamas rocket fire may grab headlines, but settler violence against Palestinians has increased 315 percent between 2007 and 2011 according to one report by the Jerusalem Fund.
Last year saw the emergence of “price tag” attacks against Palestinians and their property. The attacks have targeted mosques and Palestinian property. “It’s very annoying for the whole population of east Jerusalem and there has been no progress in the peace movement,” said Obada, a Beit Hanina store owner in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. “Nothing has been achieved and these [Jewish] extremists are doing this with a green light from the Israeli government.”
“Many times Israeli police arrest Jewish extremists who damage Arab areas and let them go within 48 hours,” Obada said. “If an Arab just thought about it, or made a move to attack a Jew, he’d be shot dead.”
The Guardian reported last year that settler violence had tripled in the three-year period 2009–2011. “Acts of settler violence are becoming a serious concern for the Israeli state which has so far failed to effectively protect the Palestinian population,” says the report sent to EU ambassadors in Brussels.
The report claims that 411 attacks by settlers last year resulting in Palestinian casualties and damage to property, against 132 attacks in 2009.
In addition, thousands of Palestinian olive trees are uprooted or burned by settlers. Using U.N. statistics, The Guardian reports that at least 10,000 olive trees were destroyed by settlers in 2011.
“Israeli civilians have perpetrated various forms of violence against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, damaging their lands, their persons and their property. In recent years, settlers have carried out violent acts under the slogan ‘price tag.’ These are acts of violence aimed at the Palestinian population and Israeli security forces,” the Israel Human Rights organization B’Tselem reports.
The majority of these acts of violence are thought to come from ideological settlers who populate the land for religious reasons, but there are also thousands of non-religious settlers who flocked to the West Bank in recent years for economic incentives.
“The government said: I will help you buy a house in Karnei Shomron, so I went with my family. I came for economic reasons, not ideological reasons. I came because I wanted a cheaper house,” said Benny Raz, a settler in a 2010 interview.
Lured with promises of low rate mortgages, Raz came like thousands of secular Israelis who have settled alongside or within religious communities. Many enjoy a 90 percent reduction in property taxes and cheaper cost of living, compared with cities like Tel Aviv, which rivals New York and London in terms of property values and rent.
“Over the years it’s become a pretty mixed bag in the settler population. You still have religious people who live there because they believe this is part of the land of Israel, the land of the forefathers, the land of the bible and others who live there because they like the area, it’s close to where they work, and there is affordable housing,” said Arbell.
The thought of offering economic incentives to move back has been heralded as a possible way to entice this group of settlers, thought to be around 27 percent– back to Israel.
President Shimon Peres recently called upon 100,000 settlers from the West Bank to move to the Negev, an area in Southern Israel that remains sparsely populated. “There would be another 100,000 people here,” Peres said at an event earlier this summer.
Not all agree with this approach. “The attempts by members of the Israeli left to induce Israelis to abandon their homes in Judea and Samaria by offering them monetary compensation are pathetic. This checkbook policy has failed in the past, as it will in the future. In the areas targeted for evacuation most of us are ideologically motivated and do not live here for economic reasons. Property prices in the area are steep and settlers who want to relocate could sell their property on the free market. But they do not,” writes Dani Dayan, a leading settlement supporter and leading spokesman for settlement construction in a New York Times Op-Ed.
Evacuating settlements would be a difficult road to take, but it’s not unprecedented.. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to unilaterally evacuate all 21 settlements in Gaza and four West Bank settlements in 2005. Many of the 9,000 settlers who were evicted relocated to the West Bank.
What do the opinion polls show amongst the broader Israeli population?
The latest Pew opinion poll conducted this year shows that about 42 percent of Israelis believe the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts their nation’s security while 27 percent say the expansion of settlements helps Israel’s security. Twenty-three percent say it does not make a difference.
“In these places, the people know that there is no hope and there is no future. They understand that, at the end of the day, Israel will not keep these places,” said Avshalom Vilan, from the left wing Meretz party.