A Settler Against the Occupation

Alongside Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority there was one more crucial player in - and trigger for - the Gaza conflict: Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Amir Hetsroni
Amir Hetsroni
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Ariel University
Ariel UniversityCredit: AP
Amir Hetsroni
Amir Hetsroni

The most peaceful places in Israel during Operation Protective Edge were the settlements in the West Bank. It is a paradox because these settlements are actually the source of the crisis. Apparently, only three actors are involved in the Gaza "play": Hamas, shooting rockets at Israel indiscriminately from Gaza and trying to sneak in through underground tunnels; Israel, responding with mighty air raids and a land invasion; and the Palestinian Authority, watching from the sidelines. On the surface, the settlements are not a factor, and Israel's combat with Hamas has nothing to do with the occupation of the West Bank. But this is just the superficial view.

Without undermining Hamas' inhuman attitudes and its deliberate attacks on civilians, one cannot also ignore the fact that the current summer theater – the third in a row that started in 2009 and proceeded in 2012 – is just one element of a conflict where Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the establishment of settlements have a lot to be blamed for.

The 1993 Oslo Accords promised the Palestinians a state of their own within a five-year period. More than two decades have passed since then and there’s no sign of a Palestinian state on the horizon. The West Bank is dotted with more than 300 Jewish settlements that disrupt the geographical unity and contiguity of Palestinian townships. The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank quadrupled from 100,000 in the early 1990s to 400,000 now. These settlements are frequently placed on hilltops in order to cut the connection between Palestinian towns and villages. The peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have reached a dead end and the unemployment rate in Gaza is close to an all-time-high.

Does this justify shooting missiles at civilians? Of course not. Can this explain why Palestinians resort to desperate steps? By all means – yes.

I talk from firsthand experience: I am an Israeli settler due to my place of work. I am a professor of mass media. I’m not bad at my job, but no matter how good a scientist you are in Israel – your best (and often only) chance to get an academic job is if you agree to work in the West Bank, in the recently upgraded Ariel University.

Scientifically superb it may be and state-of-the-art innovative courses it may offer, but despite its location in the heart of the Palestinian homeland, the university accepts only Israeli students and hires only Israeli faculty who flock there in large numbers. Over the last five years the number of students and faculty has nearly doubled. The reason is obvious: Where else can a student enroll without having to pass the dreadful psychometric exam (equivalent to the SAT)? Where else can academics find a steady job, when Ariel University has more openings per year than several other Israeli universities combined? A similar principle to attract Israelis to move to the West Bank is operated through taxation (someone earning the same income would be taxed approximately 10% less if they reside in a settlement defined as "high priority") and in real estate (a villa in Oranit – a settlement that straddles the Green Line – costs half of what one would have to pay for a similar house in Petah Tikva in Israel proper, less than 10km to the west).

Thus, the territories provide the Israeli lower and middle classes with an economic colonialist temptation that is hard to resist. Yet, this good life comes at the cost of the bad life of many more Israelis who live inside the Green Line. They’re the ones who are paying, by having to seek shelter from Hamas rockets, and by their army service, risking their life in Gaza (and that is of course before I have mentioned the Palestinian "payment" in the form of life under the shower of Israeli bombs).

So what to do? Hamas is clearly not the ideal candidate for negotiations; its basic ideology refuses to countenance Israel's right to existence. The Palestinian Authority is in principle willing to reach a two-state deal and would probably be able to gradually enforce it on Hamas; but the settlements stand as an obstacle disrupting any deal, and are now presented by the Israeli government as an "irreversible condition": A now-unassailable demographic and logistical reality indicating that supposedly there is no way of dissolving the settlements and evacuating the settlers.

However, if France was able to dislocate one million settlers from Algeria back to mainland France in the early 1960s, if Germany – still destroyed by WWII – was able to find new homes for no fewer than six million Germans, and if Israel itself was able to absorb half-a-million newcomers in the early 1950s and a million immigrants from Russia in the early 1990s – would it be that impossible to shift just a couple of hundred thousand settlers a few kilometers to the west for the sake of peace?

Amir Hetsroni is a professor of communication at Ariel University- an Israeli university located in the West Bank. The article expresses his opinion and does not represent the view of the university.

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