Gideon Levy |

Expanding the Limits of Jewish Sovereignty: A Brief History of Israeli Settlements

An unsettling new Breaking the Silence tour focuses on the history of the occupation. Every Israeli and visitor who cares about what’s happening here has to take it

Mobile homes on the road to Beit El, in the West Bank.
Mobile homes on the road to Beit El, in the West Bank. Credit: Alex Levac

At the end of the day, we stood above the ditch that holds the road designated for Palestinians who want to travel from an enclave of three West Bank villages – Biddu, Beit Surik and Qatannah – to Ramallah. Above that road, Israeli vehicles sped smoothly along Highway 443, the high road to the capital, without the drivers even seeing the segregation road below, which is hemmed in by iron fencing and barbed wire. The Israelis on the expressway above, the Palestinians on the subterranean route below: a picture that’s worth a thousand words. Israel dubs these separation routes “fabric-of-life roads.” It sounds promising but in reality these byways are just another, monstrous product of the apartheid system.

A few hundred meters away, in Givon Hahadasha (New Givon) – and like the settlement, enclosed on all sides by iron fencing and spiky wire, and complete with electronic cameras and an electric gate – is the home of the Agrayeb family. Here the occupation looms at its most grotesque: a Palestinian family cut off from its village (Beit Ijza) in the quasi-prison of the enclave and left to live in this house-cage in the heart of a settlement, a situation that the High Court of Justice of the region’s sole democracy has termed acceptably “proportional harm.” At the conclusion of an instructive tour, the tunnel and the cage, Highway 443 and New Givon, the “proportional harm” and the “fabric-of-life roads” all spark grim, utterly depressing thoughts here in the realm of apartheid. The thoughts that arose in late afternoon on a cold, stormy winter day will long haunt us.

Since the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence was founded in 2004, it has led hundreds of study tours to Hebron and to the South Hebron Hills, in which tens of thousands of Israelis and others have taken part. The tours, which draw about 5,000 participants a year, are aimed at the gut, and no one returns indifferent from the ghostly population-transfer quarter in Hebron or from the land of the caves whose inhabitants have been dispossessed, in the South Hebron Hills. Now the NGO is launching a new tour, analytical and insightful, of the central West Bank, which focuses on the history of the occupation from its inception down to our time.

Yehuda Shaul, 36, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, a former Haredi and an ex-combat soldier, worked for about a year and a half planning the tour, writing the texts and preparing the maps, drawing on some 40 books about the settlements and other materials found while burrowing in archives. Shaul is a superb guide along the trails of the occupation – businesslike and brimming with knowledge, not given to sloganizing. He is committed and determined but also bound by the facts, and he is articulate in Hebrew and English. His tour is currently in the pilot stage, before its official launch in a few months.

A day in the Ramallah subdistrict, from the Haredi settlement of Modi’in Ilit to the home of the young Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi, in the village of Nabi Saleh, from the region of the Allon Plan to the fabric-of-life scheme – during this seven-hour journey, an unvarnished picture emerges: The goals of the occupation were determined immediately after the 1967 war. Every Israeli government since, without exception, has worked to realize them. The aim: to prevent the establishment of any Palestinian entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, by carving up the West Bank and shattering it into shards of territory. The methods have varied, but the goal remains unwavering: eternal Israeli rule.

Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi.Credit: Alex Levac

That goal hasn’t been implemented only by right-wing zealots, but by the very establishment of Israel, its governmental agencies, with the backing of the judiciary and the media. On the road to a million settlers, the first million – all means were justified. Now, as that target draws closer, the central goal is the development of infrastructures. The separate roads, deceptive with their bypass routes, the tunnels and the interchanges, all of these are more fateful than another flood of settlers. They allow every settler to live in relative security, not to see Palestinians and not to hear about their existence, to live cheaply and to get to work in Israel fast. That’s the secret that’s made it possible for 650,000 Israelis to violate international law and norms of justice, to live in occupied areas and feel good about themselves. The occasional few bones that the occupier throws the occupied allows life under the boot to continue without excessive resistance.

Two trucks from Guetta Movers and Cranes carrying mobile homes ascended the road toward the settlement of Beit El, a police car in front and an army pickup between them. “Caution, long load,” reads the sign posted on the last vehicle in the convoy, like some sort of metaphor.

Nothing was left to chance in the establishment of the settlements and in their geographical distribution. The maps tell the story. All the Palestinian cities of the West Bank, with the exception of Jenin, are encircled on all sides by settlements. Everything was meticulously planned. A project that began with the return of a handful of fanatics to Hebron and to the Etzion Bloc, and with the occupancy of the “House of Seven” in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina, was rapidly accelerated according to the old Zionist idea: Jewish settlement determines the boundaries of Jewish sovereignty.

East Jerusalem was annexed immediately after the Six-Day War, along with 28 adjacent Palestinian locales, and immediately a settlement drive was launched to ensure territorial continuity that encompassed the Mount Scopus enclave (i.e., the four abutting Jewish “hinge neighborhoods” – Ma’alot Dafna, Ramat Eshkol, Givat Hamivtar and French Hill) and to expand the city’s jurisdiction (the peripheral “satellite neighborhoods”). When Jerusalem began to be mooted as the capital of Palestine, new Jewish neighborhoods were built with the aim of severing the city from the West Bank.

Although it was never officially adopted, the Allon Plan, drafted in 1967 by Yigal Allon – an iconic figure from the War of Independence and afterward a leading politician – was in large measure implemented. Its aim: to cut off the West Bank from Jordan by means of two roads, the Jordan Valley road and what’s known as the Allon Route, and to establish settlements and army training camps alongside both highways.

Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when doubts about the endeavor began to surface among the founding fathers of the settlement enterprise – the leaders of the Labor movement – the messianic Gush Emunim settlement movement was founded. Once Hebron and Jerusalem had filled up with settlers, its members turned their attention to the Nablus region. In 1975, then-defense minister Shimon Peres lent a hand to the establishment of Ofra by devious means, and all the other settlements followed in its wake.

In 1977, Likud came to power and Ariel Sharon was appointed minister of agriculture. Now the goal was to erase the Green Line to the west and create corridors running west to east across the West Bank, in order to carve it up. Again, these were not the ideas of wild-eyed fanatics, but consistent, planned policies by Israeli governments to perpetuate the country’s control throughout all of the occupied territory and to prevent Palestinian independence, even before the option of the two-state solution was put forward.

How was the requisite land acquired? In a number of ways, all of them underhanded. It started with abandoned Jordanian army bases, followed by expropriations “for public purposes,” mainly in East Jerusalem and in the Ma’aleh Adumim area east of Jerusalem. Then came “seizure for military purposes,” with the state repeatedly duping the judiciary by claiming that the settlements served security needs and the courts accepting the ruse, until the 1979 High Court of Justice ruling on the Elon Moreh settlement put paid to that game.

The state had no choice but to concoct a new trick: the declaration of “state lands,” the settlers’ new cornucopia. Yet another policy gimmick drew on an old Ottoman law according to which uncultivated land could be confiscated. It’s not by chance that most of today’s settlements are perched atop mountains and hills in the West Bank: The land there is rocky – harder to work, easier to plunder.

The Oslo Accords dovetailed nicely with a master plan aimed at fragmentizing the West Bank into Bantustans. Some 82 percent of the occupied territory remained under the control of the Israel Defense Forces, but in the wake of the intifada, there was yet another innovation: construction of so-called bypass roads, the next innovation of the occupation. According to Breaking the Silence’s Yehuda Shaul, this is the most important development since Oslo. The struggle then shifted from settlements to infrastructure. The reasoning was that settlers should not have to travel on hostile, dangerous roads that aren’t theirs. They needed a better solution to avoid having to travel home by way of Palestinian refugee camps like Deheishe and Aida. And with new roads, it would also be possible to triple the number of settlers in the years ahead.

The new Breaking the Silence tour led by Yehuda Shaul.Credit: Alex Levac

We stop by Wadi Haramiya, where the old Highway 60 merges with the new Highway 60, which skirts Ramallah. There are dozens of similar bypass routes, which have transformed the lives of settlers and indeed made it possible to triple their number to the current 650,000, including East Jerusalem. A roadside sign invites us to “Merlot, a restaurant and café in Shiloh,” a longtime settlement. The way there no longer passes through Sinjil, an ancient Palestinian town. “This Is Living,” reads the inscription on a vehicle distributing Corona Beer, which is perhaps on the way to Merlot.

The settler outposts began to sprout in the late 1990s. From a towering hill crowned with antennas where a brutally cold wind whips us, we observe the Land of the Outposts surrounding Shiloh. Even for someone who knows the territories, the scene beggars belief, and is more persuasive than a thousand articles. Hakaron, Pilgei Mayim, Hayuval, Ofarim, Eish Kadosh, Adei Ad, Haroeh, Kida – names by no means temporary, of locales that are by no means fleeting. Between Eli and Shiloh, all the hills are dotted with mobile homes, there’s not a hilltop without an “illegal” outpost, and much of the valley, too, is strewn with them.

A consecutive line of habitation, from the urban settlement of Ariel to this string of outposts is intended to carve up the West Bank here, too. The goal is the same: to prevent establishment of a non-Israeli entity. To abort the unborn infant – the two-state solution – that Israel and the world have been talking about so resolutely for decades. From the hill of antennas to which Shaul dragged us in the chilling wind, the picture is clear and sharp. By the same means – via the outposts and their tyrannical inhabitants – the Palestinians are prevented from getting to their lands and working them, thus further facilitating their dispossession. The “regularization law,” the latest invention of the occupation, will legalize the outposts, too.

The Tamimi family’s home in Nabi Saleh. Ahed, 18, who has just awoken from her youthful sleep at this midday hour, joins us barefoot and yawning. She’s completed her matriculation exams and is now planning to visit London with her father, Bassem, for a few months in order to learn English, courtesy of a scholarship she received. Half a year has passed since her release from prison, where she served eight months after being convicted of assaulting a soldier, and she’s a bit weary of her worldwide fame. Her village, too, is a bit weary of the struggle. The Friday demonstrations here have stopped since IDF soldiers started to shoot demonstrators in the legs with live ammunition, and protest leaders are searching for other outlets.

“Resistance doesn’t have to be suffering,” Bassem tells us in the living room of the renovated house, which has been threatened by an Israeli demolition order. He redid the dwelling while his wife, Nariman, and his daughter, Ahed, were imprisoned, he says, to show that life goes on as usual, despite everything. His son, Waad, is still in jail. Part of their village is in Area B (Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control) and part in Area C (full Israeli civil and security control). There’s one house that’s split between the two Oslo-determined zones.

Ahed was dangerous to Israel not because she posed a danger to the state, but because she posed a danger to the occupation, Shaul explains; the occupation cannot tolerate unyielding Palestinians. His tour will include a stop in this impressive house of struggle.

A yellow iron gate closes one of the entrances to Nabi Saleh, as in many other villages. This, too, is calculated policy: to lock and to shutter, to leave only one gate open, a “necessary route,” in the lingo of the occupation. The infrastructure for lockdown is in place: A village can be sealed off within minutes, with no one able to enter or leave. The threatening psychological effect is also clear.

Just a few minutes away is the largest of the settlements, Modi’in Ilit, with 65,000 ultra-Orthodox residents – yet another impressive development in the history of the settlement enterprise. Since the Haredim began moving to the territories, in the mid-1980s, the settler population has soared by tens of thousands. Half the increase in the number of settlers since the Oslo Accords is due to the influx of Haredim. Fully 20 percent of all settlers now live in two Haredi locales, Betar Illit and Modi’in Ilit. Both are close to the Green Line, almost suburbs of the big ultra-Orthodox cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, a solution to the housing crunch of that public, which for years had distanced itself from nationalist and right-wing trends. Now they’ve come, too. Ever since and apparently for always.

Every Israeli and every visitor who’s interested in what’s happening here owes it to himself to take this tour.

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