Opinion |

My Parents Founded a Settlement, Now Trump Could Make Their Dream Come True

The expansion of Jewish settlements has followed a consistent pattern for about 100 years – the replacement of Palestinians by Jews. The new U.S. president provides a historical opportunity to accelerate the process.

Yair Svorai
Orthodox Jews sitting on a hilltop above Bethlehem.
Orthodox Jews sitting on a hilltop above Bethlehem in the West Bank.Credit: Marco Longari/AFP
Yair Svorai

U.S. President Donald Trump’s “two-state and one-state” pronouncement last month effectively signaled the demise of the Oslo Agreements – a significant reversal of the long-established U.S. position, now in contrast with a near-universal international consensus. It also supports the continuation of Israel’s colonization of the territories it has occupied since 1967.

Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the spirit of occupation-as-usual by demanding “security control” over the entire area west of the Jordan River, proclaiming, in the words of Rashid Khalidi, writing in The Nation, “A permanent regime of occupation and colonization, ruling out a sovereign independent Palestinian state, whatever fictions of ‘statehood’ or ‘autonomy’ are dreamed up to conceal this brutal reality. Trump’s subsequent silence amounts to the blessing of the U.S. government for this grotesque vision of enduring subjugation and dispossession for the Palestinians.”

The expansion of Jewish settlement in, and control of, Palestine has followed a consistent pattern for about 100 years: people replacement – the replacement of Palestinians by Jews. It is crucial to understand the timing of such expansion: whenever the opportunity arises. And, for Israel, Donald J. Trump is a historical opportunity on a grand scale.

In 1907, the leadership of the World Zionist Organization sent Dr. Arthur Ruppin on a fact-finding mission to Ottoman Palestine. Ruppin, a German-Jewish economist and lawyer, subsequently developed a plan with the ultimate goal of establishing Jewish self-rule in Ottoman Palestine, where Jews were a small minority (between 6 and 9 percent).

The plan included establishing new settlements in such a way that over time they would form a mass of settlements – Israel’s first settlement bloc – to be used, much like today, as a geopolitical leveraging tool.

In the following three decades, prior to the Holocaust and before anyone could imagine the horrific fate awaiting European Jews, the foundation of the State of Israel was set in place via the creation of elaborate pre-state institutions, buttressed by small waves of immigrants whose political orientation ranged from Zionist socialists to right-wing ultra-nationalists.

Among the latter were my parents, Moshe and Tova Svorai, arriving as children from Eastern Europe in the early 1920s and belonging to the most far-right elements of the Zionist movement – Betar and Brit Habirionim, followed by the Irgun, and then the Lehi (Stern Gang); both of these were pre-state Jewish terrorist organizations.

In the big-picture sense, left-wing and right-wing Zionists wanted the same thing – a Jewish state in Palestine. The differences among them were largely semantic: a matter of political style, timing and competing approaches on how to reach that goal.

U.S. President Donald Trump looks over at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a joint press conference in Washington, February 15, 2017.Credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

The elephant-in-the-room facing Zionism was – then, as now – ignored: the land was already populated by Palestinian Arabs, who had been there for centuries. Ignoring the physical reality, from early on Zionist terminology was designed to perpetuate the myth of an empty land awaiting its lost people: “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

A dunam here and a dunam there

Following the original Ruppin Plan, the expansion of Jewish settlement started with land acquisitions from absentee Arab landlords, culminating in a military campaign to drive the native population off its land. As the old Zionist saying goes, “A dunam here and a dunam there” (a dunam is approximately equal to a quarter of an acre), whenever the opportunity arises.

The same opportunistic vigor was used to remove the Palestinian people from what was soon to become Israel.

The best known milestone in the removal of the Arab population was the Deir Yassin massacre of April 9, 1948, conducted by Irgun and Lehi forces, designed to scare Palestinians and cause them to flee their homes, towns and villages.

Israel’s War of Independence consisted of other massacres, too. The war itself followed Plan Dalet (Plan D), carefully developed by the “moderate,” mainstream Haganah leadership to expand the territory of the future state beyond the UN Partition Plan and to remove as much of Palestine’s Arab population as possible. Then, as now, the goal of the Jewish state has been to maximize its land area and to minimize the Palestinian-Arab population residing in it.

This was the Nakba, the catastrophe – a term used by the Palestinian people to describe the loss of their homeland: the disappearance of entire communities totaling some 750,000 people, who were forced out of their country. Post-1948 Palestine was a drastically changed land: about 500 Palestinian towns and villages had been emptied of their inhabitants, their homes mostly razed and their lands divided among the Jewish kibbutzim (communal farms) and villages.

The term Nakba, which is central to Palestinian nationhood as much as the Holocaust is for Jews and slavery is for African-Americans, is shunned by most Israeli Jews for obvious reasons: Even the mere implication of responsibility for the Nakba war crimes is unacceptable.

Those Palestinians who managed to remain, now known as “1948 Palestinians,” were placed under military rule, with their basic civil rights – such as the freedom to assemble, travel and claim their properties – removed. In addition, most of their lands were confiscated by the newly created Jewish state and transferred to kibbutzim and villages.

Military rule lasted until 1966 and assured that the dispossession of the Palestinians could be carried out in a well-organized and highly controlled manner – “a dunam here and a dunam there” – with the remnants of the subject population confined to specific territories, in many cases restricted to their villages, homes or jail cells.

‘This will belong to us’

The Green Line – the 1949 armistice line separating Israel from the West Bank of Jordan – followed the line of Jewish settlements put in place during the 1920s-’40s, in close adherence to the Ruppin Plan. It is probably the first example of how “facts on the ground” proved to be crucial for the success of the Zionist project, something that Ruppin appreciated possibly before anyone else.

But the old Green Line was irregular and left a great deal of fertile, hilly land on the other side. And then there was Jerusalem, whose eastern parts, including Temple Mount, were also on the other side of that border. Standing with my parents near the Montefiore Windmill in the early ’60s, looking at the Old City on the other side of the then-border, I vividly remember my astonished reaction to hearing my mother say, “One day, this too will belong to us.” She was soon to be proved right.

The swift military victory of the 1967 war offered an unprecedented opportunity for Israel to expand in all directions. Jerusalem was the nationalist-religious pinnacle; even more importantly, the last remaining parts of old Palestine were now there for the taking – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, totaling 22 percent of historic Palestine. Ditto the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, and Sinai (which was subsequently returned to Egypt under a separate “peace agreement” following the 1973 war).

Since 1967, under the so-called “moderate” and “extreme” Israeli governments led by the Labor and Likud parties, some 130 settlements and 100 outposts have been established in the West Bank, with a population of some 400,000 Jewish settlers. Additionally, some 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.

Any relocation of the occupier’s population into occupied territories, whether into government-established settlements or so-called “rogue” outposts, is considered illegal according to international law and conventions.

When they were in their 60s, my own parents were among the founders of a settlement in the northern West Bank, where they spent the rest of their days. They were firm believers in the absolute and exclusive right of the Jewish people to its biblical homeland, and remained committed to making their personal contribution to their cause to the very end.

They were guided by Lehi’s “18 Principles of Rebirth” essay, which defined biblical Israel as starting at the Nile and reaching to the Euphrates River – a vast territory that includes parts of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, most of Jordan and Syria, and all of Lebanon. Incidentally, a large number of Israeli right-wingers, among them Netanyahu and members of his government, admire Lehi and its principles – including, at least in spirit, its territorial desires.

Immediately after the 1967 war, the Syrian population of the Golan Heights (some 130,000 people) was forced out by Israel, 1948-style, leaving the territory largely empty for Israeli colonization to take root. Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights followed in 1981. (Netanyahu is now seeking U.S. recognition from Trump of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.)

Erasing the past

And the Nakba continued. The initial period after the 1967 war included a number of known cases where West Bank villagers were expelled from their homes by an Israeli military command attributed to Gen. Yitzhak Rabin. Among them were the villages of Imwas, Yalo and Bayt Nuba in the Latrun area, which were subsequently razed. (I visited the three destroyed villages in August 1967. There was very little left other than broken stones and fruit trees bursting with fruit left unpicked by villagers, now turned refugees.) In an attempt to eradicate the villages from history and erase them from public memory, the victors attempted to conceal their crimes by planting a recreational forest, named Canada Park, on the land formerly owned and cultivated by these villagers – a concealment method that had been used before.

As for the rest of the West Bank, in a slow process that has lasted nearly 50 years – and which continues to this day – the Palestinian population has been stripped of much of its land and pushed into Bantustan-like areas surrounded by Jewish settlements. The territory is now dissected into enclaves designed by Israel to assure a discontinuity of Palestinian land, thereby guaranteeing that a viable Palestinian state cannot be established.

“Facts on the ground” work in both directions: the presence of one population (Jewish) and the absence of another (Palestinian). Now, most of the Jordan Valley has been cleared of the Palestinian population; in hamlets of the poorest population – the Hebron Hills Bedouin – families are routinely uprooted and forced out of their shacks.

And throughout the West Bank, bit by bit, “a dunam here and a dunam there,” Palestinians are forced out by Jews. Houses are demolished, land is taken or its cultivation is prevented; olive groves are uprooted by settler thugs with full impunity, under the watchful gaze of Israel’s occupation army – euphemistically called the Israel Defense Forces. And Israeli government policy greatly restricts Palestinians in the West Bank from using their land and natural resources, especially water required to cultivate crops.

Thus, while Israeli settlements enjoy unrestricted water usage with lawn sprinklers galore, Palestinian farmers who dig out a 10-foot-long (3-meter) trench to collect and divert rainwater into a field or vegetable garden risk punishment and the destruction of their fields and gardens.

And the Nakba continues. A similar crackdown on Israel’s Palestinian citizens takes place with predictable regularity along similar patterns – as witnessed most recently by the destruction of the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran, whose population is to be corralled elsewhere in the Negev and its lands designated for a new Jewish settlement. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This is a very short list of the evils of Israel’s occupation – all of this, and much more, has been widely reported over the past five decades, and documented in great detail by UN agencies, multiple international aid organizations, foreign consulate staff and local civic organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli. (The death and destruction in Gaza, its collapsed infrastructure, economy, essential public health facilities, child nutrition and basic resources of livelihood require separate coverage.)

The Oslo II (“Taba”) Agreement divided the West Bank into Areas A, B and C – a division that is used by Israel to divide and rule, confine and control the local Palestinian population.

The experience of 1948 and the early years of statehood have proven most beneficial to Zionist colonialism. A slow and methodical acquisition of land, this time by means that are entirely illegal, coupled with strategic removal and confinement of the Palestinian population, resulted in settlement blocs – vast land areas that are largely Arab-free and a network of highways, other infrastructure projects and state institutions serving the Jewish-only settlements.

This is nothing short of new-age apartheid, where the indigenous population is not only of no value to its colonial masters – not even as a source of cheap labor – but it is essential for the success of the colonial project that it be removed: the more of “them” that are gone, the better off “we” are. That people-removal process is called ethnic cleansing, which is a crime against humanity under the statute of the International Criminal Court.

All of this has been carried out mostly in plain view, under the world’s watchful eye. It has also been made possible and indirectly funded by the United States, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike – notwithstanding outgoing President Barack Obama’s lame-duck UN Security Council non-veto move, and various U.S. declarations about Israeli settlements being “a threat to peace,” or making it “almost impossible to create a contiguous, functioning Palestinian state.” Both true, but meaningless.

Despite the rhetoric, the United States has been the primary enabler of Israel’s occupation: military aid (currently $38 billion over the next 10 years), including the very latest technologies, and close military coordination; tax exemptions for donations to Israel, including to organizations that fund settlements; global diplomatic protection; and the lending of legitimacy to a state whose actions would have otherwise made it a global pariah long ago.

Thus, under the guise of a never-ending “peace process,” the United States has acted as a dishonest broker and purveyor of broken promises, e.g., a “two-state solution” where the territory of the imagined state is eaten up by the other, already existing regional-superpower state while “peace talks” continue. It’s like the pizza analogy where two parties engage in lengthy negotiations over the splitting of a pie, while one of them keeps eating the slices. Over these past 50 years, the United States has facilitated the replacement of the Palestinian people, bit by bit, one dunam and one person at a time, as Israel grabs every opportunity that arises, paid for by Uncle Sam.

For Israel, the election of Trump to the highest office in the land presents a historical opportunity on a grand scale to accelerate both settlement expansion and the process of people replacement.

Never before has a U.S. president expressed such unbridled support for an Israeli government – especially one that is widely seen as the most right-wing, aggressive Israeli government ever.

In light of the new opportunity, the Israeli government has unleashed a wave of settlement construction permits in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – so far totaling about 6,000 homes for Jewish settlers – and announced the creation of a new settlement.

In addition, a new law allowing the confiscation of privately held Palestinian land for the benefit of Jewish settlements was recently passed. As journalist Jonathan Cook explained in The National, “In practice, there has never been a serious limit on theft of Palestinian land. But now Israeli government support for the plunder will be explicit in law.” The Nakba continues, vigorously.

Reality could not be much uglier and the future could not look much bleaker – most especially for Palestinians, but also for Israeli Jews. As Haaretz writer and occupation expert Amira Hass noted, “It’s hard to admit that the Zionist ideology and its product – Israel – have created a thieving, racist, arrogant monster that robs water and land and history, that has blood on its hands under the excuse of security, that for decades has been deliberately planning today’s dangerous Bantustan reality, on both sides of the Green Line.”

Perhaps hard to admit, but crucially important to recognize.

The writer, a former Israeli, has lived in the United States for 45 years.

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