Sunday, July 8, 2007

The West Bank Settlements

We stepped onto a tour bus today to visit the Gush Etzion West Bank settlements. These settlements represent some of the thorniest political and ideological challenges in Israel/Palestinian relations. Our tour guide, Moshe Ben Baruch (who last week took us on a private tour of the Galilee and Golan Heights), led the commentary in this one-day tour co-ordinated by the One Israel Fund which supports the settler movement.

We visited an "unauthorized outpost" -- a group of trailers with 10 families on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. These settlers are not supposed to be there -- they are going against the grain of the international community and official Israeli government policy. (However, while they are using 'pirate electricity' and cannot access mortgage funds to build real houses on the site, you can climb up an army watchtower manned by very real soldiers -- clearly, if this site shouldn't be here, why are the soldiers guarding it, rather than using force to remove the settlers?
The settler movement is a complex, honourable mix of religion and ideology. It traces its antecedents to the original Zionist movement (and the settlers certainly consider themselves to true Zionists). People opposed to the existence of the State of Israel claim settlers are indeed made of the same stuff of the original Zionist pioneers -- their viewpoint is that Jewish settlers grabbed land that didn't belong to them.

However, there are some significant differences between these settlers and the original pre-1948 Palestine Zionists. The biggest difference is ideology. Many of the original Zionists were, frankly, secular Jews -- in fact, many of the "Labour Zionists" came close to being true communists. The Kibbutz movement reflected truly socialist values. As well, of course, in the late 19th and early 20th century (and earlier) settling on lands occupied by indigenous populations did not have the negative connotations it has today -- colonialism really reflected the West's moral obligation and duty to civilize the savage lands -- how else could Australia and North America be occupied?
The critical differentiation of conventional 'colonies' that turned into indigenous independent nations and former colonies where the previous colonialists control the nations today is population and demographics -- where the indigenous population died out or was dwarfed by the immigrant population, the "western" nation-states survived; where the indigenous population remained the majority, the colonies crumbled and were replaced by independent states controlled by the majority race. (Most of these states were not controlled by the "majority" of individuals of course -- as virtually none, perhaps with the notable exceptions of India and Botswana, are currently practicing democracies.)

So Israel evolved out of that idealistic colonial era -- and the confluence of two apparently contradictory values. The Jewish population, facing persecution around the world, sought its own homeland and nation state; and the Jews sought to colonize and occupy their ancestral homeland, Palestine, against the wishes of the local Arab population and the wider Muslim world. This rare but vital congruence resulted in the 1947 U.N. partition resolution (remember, the Soviet Union and the U.S., then arch enemies, both had to vote in favour) that defines Israel's legitimacy. The partition resolution largely tried to set the state's boundaries by on-the-ground population realities, and the resulting Israeli state-- forged by intense war and refugee movements -- confirmed the majority Jewish population within its borders, and thus its legitimacy within post-colonial values.
Things changed in 1967 when Israel occupied swaths of land including all the Arab/Muslim sections of Palestine, including all of Jerusalem. And the Settler movement arose to reclaim and settle the Arab Palestinian lands in the Jewish State's name, now backed by its military might.
I believe the modern-day settlers, along with some right wing Zionists (and pragmatic bargain-seekers; housing can be relatively inexpensive in the settlement areas) are sincerely trying to keep the original Zionist land values in mind. They allude to biblical references and believe with a passion that the Jewish state should be unified and occupy the entire Holy Land -- the former Palestine. Their sincerity is undeniable, and some very valid justification for their attitude is substantiated in the overt hostility of the Arabs (especially Hamas and sections of the militant Fatah organization) who wish Israel completely destroyed. The settlers also can look to history -- and the success of the pre-1967 Zionist movement built on gathering and developing the Palestinian lands for the Jewish homeland.

Ah, but for population. The areas in the West Bank the settlers occupy are 'majority owned' by the Arab/Muslims. Against a settler population of a few hundred thousand maximum, you have several million Palestinians. (Israel's pre-1967 territorial Arab population is about one million among six million Jews -- the Jewish state clearly can be maintained in this environment, and with this population ratio, it can afford to respect Arab/Muslim rights without degrading its Jewish character.)
However, how can the Settlers occupy these West Bank lands, claim them, and rule over the territories while remaining true to modern democratic values? The only way, the left says, would be to grant everyone the equal vote; the population would be majority Arab/Muslim and Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. If you wish to hold the land, other road to take is to deny the Arabs the vote/rights -- or tell them they can live in "Israel" but have ties only to Jordan or Egypt -- models that invite comparisons with South Africa and Rhodesia before Rhodesia turned to Zimbabwe and South Africa accepted majority black rule. Of course this argument results in the condemnation and allegations that"Zionism is Racism" and Israel is an Apartheid Nation -- sore spots, undoubtedly to the millions of Jews in Israel and the rest of the world who believe in social justice and genuine democracy and human rights. (I forged my own perspectives on these issues by living in Rhodesia as it turned to Zimbabwe in 1978-80. I won't go so far as to associate the settlers with white Rhodesians -- their religious zeal distinguishes them from the secular Rhodesian settlers -- but saw first-hand then that you cannot truly hold large swaths of territory as a minority among a hostile majority.)
The Jewish settlers don't worry about these points -- they passionately believe that Jews have the right to rule and occupy every piece of Judea and Samaria; and these rights are based in religious history and righteousness. Of course, they use archeology to validate these claims -- we saw an ancient Mikva (ritual bath) near the settlements --we saw one near the Gush Etzion located on the Roman Road to Jerusalem's holy sites, a place for spiritual purification a day's walk from the Holy Temple.
The demographic and land battle continues. At one stop on our tour, a settler spokesman said the settlers are running into new problems with Palestinians actively occupying and cultivating land they never used before. She claimed the European Union is funding this land grab. The settlers also argue history -- noting that some settlements existed in pre-1948 Palestine, only to be decimated by the Arabs during the Israeli War of Independence. But none of these arguments can override the very real fact that there are far more Muslim Arabs on the ground than Jews in these areas and the only way to displace the local population to create a true Jewish majority in these "occupied areas" would be to violate all the accepted western standards of human rights and dignity.
So we have the 'land for peace' argument; but the more you look into this 'solution' the less appealing it looks. The Gaza Strip is now controlled by Hamas, a fundamentalist group that believes as passionately on religious grounds as the settlers that Palestine should be a single state (but one controlled totally by the Muslims). Abbas/Fatah now controls the civil administration of the West Bank, but it is hard to see how the combination of corruption and uncontrolled armed bands can be brought into a peaceful, disciplined government. The armed Fatah bands share the Hamas ideology and wish Israel destroyed (unless they are bought off for a high enough personal gain). In this environment, the Jewish settlers gain legitimacy -- they occupy the front-line in a hostile world; surrounded by people who themselves do not believe in the two-state solution or partition, and have absolutely no respect for human rights or democracy themselves, even though they may mouth these words to win the West's left wing's moral and financial support.
Still, on reflection, I will agree with Ariel Sharon's decision to change direction -- to go from actively supporting the settlements to ordering their dismantlement in Gaza. Yes, Gaza is now controlled bythe Hamas terror-state entity that zealously mixes purportedly pro-Western propaganda with true hate for Israel -- but Hamas cannot find legitimacy in the world that still recognizes the Jewish state in Israel defined by its 1948-67 boundaries.
As well, one can argue that technology, monitoring methodologies, and various controls can be placed to reduce the existential threat to Israel even if the West Bank turns hostile. Presumably Israel and the new Palestine could agree to swap some land (perhaps relying on local referendums for final decision) to link the biggest West Bank settlements near Jerusalem to Israel proper, in exchange for clusters of Arab/Palestinian villages now in Israel. (My sense is that the villagers, given the choice, would choose to remain in Israel -- they of course would then lose their claim to any special considerations.) The result, if this policy is developed, would be scenes like when the settlers were evicted from Gaza -- and I confirmed during my tour that the hilltop settlers would use non-violent means to 'defend' their rights if the Israeli state courageously and with absolute determination decided they should leave.
This stuff is volatile, complex, and it is easy to see how ideology frames references, and passionate beliefs shape individual and group decisions. I certainly respect the settler movement and its pioneering zeal and spirit -- the stuff that brought the Zionists to power and created Israel. But the Settlers have not been able to solve the demographic paradox for me; they simply cannot win the numbers game. And that, ultimately decides who should occupy what territory. It will be risky, scary and expensive -- and tear at Israel's existential roots -- but the Settler Movement must either be defeated or find a realistic and morally and practically effective solution to the demographic paradox if Israel (and the original Zionist ideals) are to survive in the future.

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