By Reese Erlich
I jump on an early morning bus leaving the Jerusalem bus station bound for Hebron, in the southern West Bank. The clean and modern road is for the exclusive use of Israelis. Jewish settlers travel to segregated communities on roads like this, and rarely see Palestinians. Palestinians are kept in their own villages and towns, surrounded by concertina wire, a wall, and Israeli military checkpoints. Listen here:
In Hebron some five hundred Jewish settlers have set up homes amidst 163,000 Palestinians, protected by several thousand Israeli soldiers. Hebron’s Jewish settlements have been controversial for years because, under international law, an occupying power can’t settle civilians on conquered land.
David Wilder, originally from New Jersey and now a spokesperson for the Hebron settlers, argues that international law is irrelevant here because the entire West Bank and Gaza are not occupied. They’ve always belonged to the Jews. In Wilder’s view, Jews have been the victims of Arab oppression for over a thousand years. That only changed, he says, when Israel seized the West Bank from Jordan during the 1967 war.
Wilder takes me to a synagogue built in the 1800s that he says was later desecrated by Muslims. “In 1967, where we’re standing in the synagogue, there was a sheep sty with goats,” says Wilder. “There was a public bathroom and a dump. The synagogue had been totally destroyed. Today we’re standing in a renovated synagogue that is almost identical to the building that had been destroyed.” Wilder takes me to other spots around Hebron that were owned by Jews decades and even centuries ago. “There was Jewish property here,” he says.
But Wilder’s narrative leaves out a few details. Yes, Jews lived as a minority in Hebron and other parts of modern day Israel, but Arabs constituted the large majority for centuries. Palestinians argue that just because Jews established a small community in Hebron in the nineteenth century doesn’t justify seizure of Palestinian land today.
In the 1990s Jewish residents expanded their settlement of Hebron by moving small mobile homes onto a densely populated hill overlooking the city. We drive up to a small cluster of apartments and caravans in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood. Since Jews had lived here in Biblical times, the settlers argued, they had a right to live here today. It was an illegal expansion at the time, but the Israeli government officials eventually sanctioned it.
Wilder explains that eighteen or nineteen families live here, surrounding by double fencing and concertina walls to protect them from Palestinians. Wilder carries a Glock pistol on his hip; other adult settlers are also armed. This all-Jewish enclave overlooking Hebron is protected by two thousand Israeli soldiers. For them, it’s a precarious life, surrounded by Palestinians who believe their land has been stolen. It’s even more precarious for the Palestinians, who are confronted by angry and armed settlers.
For a different perspective, I visit a leading human rights advocate in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Shawan Jabarin is director of the Al Haq Human Rights Organization. He grew up in a Palestinian village next to Hebron and has an intimate knowledge of that conflict.
“The most extremist settlers now live in Hebron,” Jabarin tells me. “Most of them are from New York and the US, unfortunately.” I asked Jabarin to respond to the views expressed by Hebron’s Jewish-American settlers. For example, hadn’t the settlers legally bought Palestinian land? “Even if it happened like that,” Jabarin says, “it’s illegal under international law for occupying power to transfer property. The Israeli civilian administration is a facilitator for the settlers. They put pressure on people and use different means to trap them.”
Whether bought or seized, says Jabarin, the Israeli courts almost always uphold settler land claims and offer no protection for Palestinians. So Palestinians inevitably come into conflict with the settlers. Then the Israeli army expels large numbers of Palestinians from their homes, saying they pose a security threat.
Jabarin and his group oppose violence by either side. He concedes, however, that some Palestinians have attacked settlers, particularly during the Second Intifada, an uprising that lasted from 2000-2004. “Some incidents happened like that,” he says. “The Israelis … indiscriminately shot Palestinians to punish all the civilians. … The officers told [IDF soldiers] to shoot indiscriminately, and it was like a game playing with people’s lives.”
Ronny Perlman agrees with Jabarin’s analysis. She’s a leader of the Israeli peace group Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch. “Before 1948 the Zionists built the kibbutz, they would always build in some way which would give the best protection to Israel,” Perlman says. “The idea is to cut up the Palestinian territories into little cantons so they can’t communicate and can’t do anything.”
The divide and conquer tactics used by Hebron settlers parallels efforts elsewhere. Today nearly 290,000 Israelis live in the West Bank. Jewish settlements block the creation of a viable Palestinian state, critics like Ronny Perlman say. That’s why she says the Israeli government should freeze settlement expansion and remove settlers from illegally occupied land.
“It is possible for the Israeli government to throw 100 people out of illegal settlements,” says Perlman. “That could be such a confidence building step towards a peace process. I am surprised that it has not been done.”
Both progressive Israelis and Palestinians concede that the right wing is ascendant in Israel at the moment, and that short-term prospects for peace look dim. But a combination of re-invigorated struggle in Israel and Palestine–combined with targeted pressure from the US–may eventually resolve the conundrum of the West Bank settler movement, exemplified so acutely in Hebron.