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The settlement issue has been at the top of the public agenda for the past several months, with the Israeli political scene abuzz in the face of talks between the Israeli government and envoys of U.S. President Barack Obama's administration on a "freeze" of construction work in settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. At the same time, Knesset members have been touring West Bank outposts and settlements, and commenting about the legality or illegality of the places they visit.

In view of the intense discussion underway, both locally and internationally, it is important to remember that the question of a settlement's "legality" is not merely a fluid technicality that can be resolved with a stroke of the pen. For one, according to international law all settlements and outposts in the West Bank are illegal. But even Israeli law, in its most basic understanding, prohibits some of the actions that are taken to "legalize" these communities. The seizure of Palestinian lands is a crucial issue, one that reflects poorly on Israel's claims to be a state that operates according to the rule of law, respects individual rights and protects the weak from violent exploitation.

Since the very beginning of the settlement enterprise, more than four decades ago, Israel has seized West Bank lands via an orchestrated, systematic and violent system. The victims of this process lose their agricultural fields, and thus their ability to lead a normal life. Their source of income is impaired, often leading to the spread of poverty and hardship.

For example, ongoing operations over the past decade, by which the settlers of Eli, north of Ramallah, have taken possession of a number of hills around the original settlement nucleus, have seriously impaired the ability of Palestinians from the nearby villages of Qaryut, Luban al-Sharqiyah and Al-Sawiyah to reach thousands of dunams that they own and depend on for their livelihoods. Even where they still have some minimal access (usually for two or three days a year, during the olive harvest), their produce is damaged and farmers are physically attacked and are simply unable to tend to their crops properly.

Contrary to the impression created by media reports in Israel, these are not isolated, unrelated incidents that happen only around settlements with particularly radical or extremist reputations. Rather, this is a well-coordinated campaign that is unfolding simultaneously throughout the West Bank, from Hebron in the south to Nablus in the north. If one looks at a map of all the locations where such incidents have taken place, the overall strategy emerges: removing the remaining Palestinians from Area C (as defined by the Oslo Accords), which constitutes the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under Israel's full responsibility.

In recent years, Yesh Din volunteers have collected testimony from dozens of Palestinians who have been prevented from reaching their plots near various settlements and outposts by means other than just the separation barrier. Their reports show that on many occasions Palestinian farmers are driven away by force. In other cases they may manage to reach their plots unharmed, only to discover that their crops have been burned, uprooted or otherwise damaged by settlers.

This harassment may not be Israel's official policy, but the state does little to prevent it. In the vast majority of cases in which victims of violence have filed complaints, the police - who, after all, are in most cases Jewish Israelis who are themselves sometimes residents of settlements - close the cases without issuing indictments and, in many cases, without even conducting thorough and comprehensive investigations. This leads to an obvious conclusion: The systematic land seizures and violations of the law happen because the legal authorities look the other way and allow such incidents to take place.

The problem begins with soldiers in the field, who do not detain violent offenders, and ends with the failure of the police and the state prosecution to bring the full force of the law to bear against the offenders.

An infrastructure of Jewish terror is being created in the West Bank. Through a policy they have dubbed "Price Tag," the settlers have the declared aim of attacking innocent Palestinians in response to any perceived threat to a settlement or outpost, verbal or physical. This is merely the anecdotal and the blunt, extreme end of this infrastructure. Through intimidation and systematic violations of the law, the supreme goal of the settlers who exercise this policy is to seize more and more land. This, in turn, causes harm to the livelihood, property and welfare of tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Those defenders of the settlement movement who argue that in a democracy it should be possible for Jews to live anywhere in the Land of Israel fail to acknowledge that the state is allowing basic tenets of democracy to crumble at the hands of violent extremists. Defense of individual property should be implemented as an absolute and not a relative standard, without bending it to accommodate land seizure by gangsters.

Roi Maor is general manager of Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, and Dror Etkes is director of its Lands Project.