Revolution#111, December 9, 2007
Review of Lords of the Land
“The Wild Wild West” of the Israeli Settler Movement
Editor’s Introduction: During the week of November 28, George Bush convened a Mid-East summit in Annapolis, Maryland that brought together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The rhetoric was of a “peace process” and a “democratic Palestinian state.” The reality behind the rhetoric is the state of Israel, which claims a mandate from “god” to occupy Palestine, and that serves as a nuclear-armed enforcer for U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. The following article and "We—Israeli soldiers—were put there to punish the Palestinians" were drawn from exposures produced by critical supporters of Israel, shed light on the nature of that state.
On the morning of February 25, 1994, an orthodox Jew named Baruch Goldstein barged into the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, on the West Bank in Palestine. At the height of the Islamic observance of Ramadan, the mosque was crowded with over 800 Muslim worshippers. Goldstein forced his way past mosque security guards, pulled out his Uzi submachine gun, and began to fire into the dense crowd. Goldstein emptied four magazines of bullets and as he was loading his fifth clip, he was subdued and killed. By then he had murdered 29 people and wounded another 125.
Goldstein was a doctor who had chosen to move from his home in Brooklyn, New York to be part of a growing movement of fundamentalist Jews in Israel who for many years have been penetrating deeper and deeper into Palestinian-owned land. Goldstein’s adopted residence was the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron.
This particular act of terror was condemned by the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin. Yet the mass murderer was hailed by mourners at his funeral as a hero, a martyr in the cause of creating “Greater Israel.” Beyond Rabin’s statement, Israel’s government took no actions to suppress or even restrain the settler movement, the soil from which Goldstein had grown. To this day, Jewish “settlements” that sometimes consist only of a trailer or a pre-fabricated shelter, continue to be established across the West Bank and the land they occupy continues to in effect be annexed by the state of Israel.
A new book that has just been published in the U.S. (it first came out in Israel, written in Hebrew, in 2005) provides a detailed study of the development of the settler movement in Israel and how it is closely tied to government policy and Zionist ideology, as well as to fanatical Jewish religious cults. Lords of the Land: the War Over Israel’s Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (New York, Nation Books, 2007) is authored by Professor Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, the chief political columnist and editorial writer for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. As supporters of the state of Israel, their exposure cannot be dismissed as being motivated by anti-Israel bias.
The West Bank and Gaza were seized by Israel in the June 1967 war against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel then accepted—in words—that it had the status of being an occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza. As a signatory to the Geneva Convention, an occupying power such as Israel is prohibited from transferring its civilian population into occupied territory.
The story of how this basic prohibition has been systematically shredded by Israel, how bit by bit the West Bank is being swallowed by Israel, is in large part the story of Lords of the Land.
“The Wild Wild West”
Approximately 2.4 million Palestinians live in the West Bank. But by the end of 2006, there were some 270,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and another 220,000 in neighborhoods surrounding Jerusalem. Since the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, nearly 20,000 new settlers have been added to the West Bank.
Lords of the Land reports that over 40% of Jewish settlement in the West Bank has been on private land owned by Palestinians “and that 130 settlements were established wholly or in part on lands that the state itself had determined to be ‘private.’ The settlers took control of these lands, but it was the state that had confiscated them and enabled the settlement of its citizens in contravention of international law, of some government decisions and in many cases of court orders.” (p. xiii) The authors cite a November 2006 report by the Israeli group Peace Now which used records from the Israeli government to present the above figures.
The violent, viciously anti-Arab fanaticism of Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre in Hebron was a concentrated example of how the Israelis first occupied and then proceeded to outright steal the West Bank. Today, Jewish settlers in the West Bank regularly carry submachine guns and act as vigilantes, often firing at Palestinian demonstrators and even at civilians who are not even confronting them.
From its inception, the settler movement has elevated its mystical vision of an expanded Israel where the “messiah” returns, above the value of human lives, especially Arab lives. When the first Palestinian Intifada (Arabic for “the shaking off”) rebellion against Israeli occupation and oppression broke out in December 1987, the settler publication Nekudah called it the “harshest test since the settlement project began.” Settler leader Hannan Porat called for “massive expulsions” of Palestinians from their own land. Rabbi Yitzhak Shilat of the large settlement of Maaleh Adumin declared that “anything we do as a result of distress and anger, even killing, is good, is acceptable and will help. Killing is just a matter for the Kingdom.”
Lords of the Land quotes a settler in 1988 who invoked a comparison to the conquest of Indian land by U.S. settlers: “Everyone can do whatever he wants. It’s a different planet. You are the law...they used to say ‘the Wild West’ as a joke. Today, this is no longer a joke. We go out at night, cover the license plates, go into the nearby Arab village and the fun begins.” (pp. 105-106)
In April 1988, a group of Israeli teenaged hikers, with armed settlers as guards, were confronted by some young Palestinians near the West Bank Jewish settlement of Elon Moreh. One of the armed settlers began firing his gun. Two teenaged Palestinians were killed and one of the Israeli teens, Tirtza Porat, the daughter of one of the founders of the settlement, was also killed. The story was spread that she was killed by a rock that had been thrown by a Palestinian. In response, the settlers and the Israeli government blamed the Palestinians from the village of Beita. Collective punishment was carried out by demolishing thirteen Palestinian homes in Beita. Tirtza Porat’s funeral was an occasion for the unleashing of fanatic fundamentalist Jewish religious wrath. “At moments, the funeral turned into a near-lynching. In the presence of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, his deputy David Levy, and Minister Ariel Sharon...Rabbi Haim Druckman called for wiping Beita off the face of the earth. Minister of Religious Affairs Zevulun Hammer followed suit and also demanded that Beita be destroyed and that a settlement named after Tirtza be established immediately in Samaria [the ancient Hebrew name for the region]. ‘Lord of Vengeance our God, Lord of Vengeance appear,’ cried Benny Katzover [a leader of the settler movement].” The prime minister said that “every act of murder strengthens the Jewish people, unites it, and connects it to this land, deepening its roots here.” (p. 109)
The truth is that Tirtza had not been killed by a stone thrown by an Arab, but in fact by a bullet fired by the settler-vigilante Romem Aldovi who had shot wildly at the Palestinian teenagers. This was the conclusion of the official government investigation into the incident.
Again, the vigilante atmosphere was not an aberration. Soon after the Intifada began, in January 1988, Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister and a few years later prime minister, declared that the way to crush the Intifada was with “force, might, and beatings.” (p. 112)
“Facts on the Ground”
In one of many case studies in the book, Lords of the Land describes what would become a template for carving up and seizing Palestinian land. In 1968, within one year of the occupation of the West Bank by the Israeli military, one of the first of many Jewish settlements was created, this time in Hebron.
The land grab took place like this: A group of fanatic orthodox Jews, led by a certain Rabbi Levinger, declared that it was god’s will for the state of Israel to annex the West Bank. They proposed to the Labor Party-led government that they be allowed to temporarily reside in Hebron in order to observe a major Jewish religious event. They went to Hebron for the religious observance and never left.
When Palestinians became angered at this affront, the Israeli army was called in to protect the settlers. The military encampment and the collection of settlers grew larger until the government “realized” it had to provide for more permanent settlement. In later years, a variation of this scheme would label the initial colonizing settlers as “workers” for a military construction project (since Israel held the West Bank under military occupation) so that no pretext was required for military intrusion into civilian Palestinian areas.
The leaders in the Israeli government who had responsibility for ruling on the settlers’ initial request to briefly stay in Hebron were non-committal. The fanatics, some secular Zionist organizations, and other government leaders who supported them, took government refusal to outright prohibit the settlers as a green light to go ahead. In January 1968, Menachem Begin, a leader of the Likud Bloc party (and who had led an underground Zionist militia in the years before the founding of Israel) was a minister without portfolio. Begin proposed to the government to “plan and build townships with Jewish inhabitants in Jericho, Hebron, Bethlehem, Nablus, Tul Karm, Jenin and Qalqilya.” All of these were major Palestinian towns in the West Bank. In September 1968, a special committee appointed by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan recommended establishing a Jewish settlement in Hebron.
Government labor minister Yigal Allon (who had also commanded another Zionist militia before 1948) along with other government leaders, “...not only became the advocates for the settlers inside the government but also helped them with advice, material, weapons, and, most important, the seal of approval of the pioneering Labor movement. Their militant, constructive sense of vocation combined with the settlers’ godly sense of mission.” (p. 15) In December 1968, Allon proposed that the government support a major settlement outside of the city limits of Hebron. Lords of the Land recalls Allon declared “that Israel had accustomed itself ‘and the entire world to relate to the act of settlement as facts that carry unique weight. This has become one of the weapons of our national revival movement. Presumably, therefore, they will make no mistake in understanding the importance of this act.’” (p. 23)
By early 1970, the settlement of Kiryat Arba was formally established just outside of Hebron, beginning with the construction of a military camp. The original settlement inside Hebron remained as well.
Methods the Zionist Movement Sanctified from its Inception
While the authors of Lords of the Land do not oppose Zionism, they shed revealing light on how the pattern of settlement in the West Bank is consistent with the Zionist project in Palestine as a whole.“The process of the settlement of Jewish civilians in the territories in breach of the Geneva Convention, which does not permit the transfer of inhabitants from the occupier’s territory to the occupied territory, was gradual and systematic, and was accomplished in ways that the Zionist movement had nurtured and sanctified from its inception. The methods that characterized the struggle before 1948 to obtain a Jewish state, a combination of overt and clandestine acts carried out by underground or semiunderground organizations, were resurrected in the territories occupied in 1967. In their capacity as the custodians of the law, and as the dominant organized system on the ground, the army and its commanders were the settlers’ main support in their illegal activities.” (pp. 345-346)
Referring to the Hebron example, the authors point out “This tried-and-true Zionist outlook, which was now copied into the context of Hebron, dated back to the days of the ‘tower and stockade’ settlements of the 1930s—the establishment overnight of controlling Jewish settlements like elevated observation points surrounded by fences and walls in the heart of an Arab population.” (p. 23) The “stockade and tower” method is explained later in more detail: “The method was the establishment of a tiny settlement within a single day, surrounded by a stockade of wood and gravel, and in its center a wooden tower topped by a searchlight. Dozens of Jewish settlements were thus established especially along the contours of Arab population centers and integrated into the improvised defense system.” (p. 278)
Today, Palestinian land in the West Bank is being chopped up left and right. There are the expanding settlements that seize Palestinian land. There is the construction of a system of highways in the West Bank that connects Jewish settlements and that Palestinians are forbidden to use. On top of this, there is the physical “security wall” being built around the West Bank which already actually intrudes well into Palestinian land, cutting off many Palestinian villages from their cultivated land and effectively annexing more Palestinian land into Israel. For example, on October 9, 2007, Israel expropriated 110 hectares (272 acres) of land near the Palestinian town of Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem. This area is near a section of the separation wall near the Jewish settlement of Maaleh Adumim that alone already extends 60 sq. kilometers (23 sq. miles) into Palestinian land.
This is all on top of the continual Israeli military assaults against Palestinian towns and villages, the constant arbitrary searches and arrests, the assassination of Palestinian activists and militants. Israeli troops also continue their practice of demolishing the houses of families with the justification that a member of the family has been accused of resistance against Israel. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions says that 18,147 homes have been demolished since 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza (see http://www.icahd.org).
And in the wake of the conference on the “Israeli-Palestinian peace process” staged by Bush this week in Annapolis, Maryland, it is worth keeping in mind that none of the negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian leadership, all sponsored by the United States government, have ever resulted in serious action by the Israelis to curtail or reverse the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank. The so-called document of “joint understanding” released by the participants at Annapolis did not even mention the settlements.
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