Don't Make Me Laugh

Palestinians find it hard to address seriously the statements by some settlers that they would prefer to remain as citizens of the new state rather than be evacuated. But if this should happen, they stress, the settlements would also be open to Palestinians

The immediate reaction of all those questioned was a great laugh and astonishment. The astonishment was over an unexpected question that seemed to come from some imaginary scenario totally detached from reality. That question was: "Under what conditions could Israeli settlers continue to live within the borders of the future Palestinian state?"

This question is perhaps relevant to the internal Israeli debate, but it seems forced and artificial to Palestinian ears for two reasons. First, the Palestinians are witness to a continuous and accelerated process of settlement expansion, with so-called "isolated" settlements (like Psagot) linked together into territorially contiguous Israeli blocs that encircle Palestinian districts, cutting them off from one other.

The Palestinians view this expansion as a well-planned, concerted effort aimed at ensuring Israeli sovereignty over as much territory as possible in the West Bank and minimizing the number of settlements that will be included within the borders of the Palestinian state or dismantled. The tiny and isolated settlements (like Ganim and Kadim), which are located deep in Palestinian territory and are slated for evacuation, are not as worrisome as the large settlements that range over several hilltops (like Eli, Givat Ze'ev, Efrata and Itamar). A hypothetical question concerning the future of a minuscule percentage of the settlers does not elicit a great desire to respond.

The second reason is that people do not even know what will happen the following day: Will there be a curfew? Will the roadblock that was sort of opened for a few days be closed again? Will there be a new incursion? Will there be a suicide attack that brings a new, tough closure and new land confiscation orders? Will the children make it to school? This creates personal, social and national uncertainty that naturally has an impact on the desire and ability to confidently sketch out future scenarios.

Thus, when someone is ready to take a chance and imagine a future scenario like this, the answer breaks down into several questions and responses, with conditions attached. All of these ultimately boil down to one question: Will this Palestinian state be established as part of what the Palestinians could accept as a fair and just accord? Or will it be part of a surrender treaty Israel is able to impose because of its military and political superiority?

Judging from countless conversations, in circumstances in which the interlocutors did not feel obliged to recite or lie or put on a show, the great majority of Palestinians regard a fair agreement as one based on establishing a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, and including the evacuation of settlements.

In principle, the demand is for the evacuation of all of the settlements, while the implementation could include compromises such as territorial exchanges on a one-to-one basis, as long as the territory being swapped is of the same quality in terms of distance, land and water resources.

And what about the right of return for refugees? What is said for public consumption in slogans is not the same as what is expressed in private conversations. The loud noise made by those demanding the right of return does not necessarily indicate that they represent a small minority. But neither does it mean that they comprise a majority. Either way, in the framework of an agreement the Palestinians regard as fair, the debate over the right of return and its implementation will take on different dimensions: more emphasis on the principle, on the need for Israel to recognize the tragedy its establishment brought upon the Palestinians, and less on the implementation. As the head of a local council in the southern West Bank put it: The moment they agree to right 80 percent of the wrong, I'm prepared to give up 20 percent of my rights.

If this is the overall scenario, then Israeli settlers would be invited to live freely within the Palestinian state. Here the respondents paint a rosy picture of the past: "Didn't we live in harmony prior to 1948?" There are also those who prettify the present situation within Israel: Don't Jews and Arabs live side by side as good neighbors in Lod?" asked Umm Ibrahim, a resident of the Askar camp in Nablus, a refugee from a village in the Lod area.

An imposed arrangement, on the other hand, does not allow people to imagine relations of "good neighbors." In this type of agreement, for example, the large settlements like Ma'aleh Adumim, Givat Ze'ev and Pisgat Ze'ev (which is not a "Jerusalem neighborhood" for the Palestinians, but a settlement), would deny Palestinian Jerusalem its expanse, turning East Jerusalem into a handful of weak villages and prevent Palestinian territorial contiguity between Bethlehem and Ramallah.

In this imposed solution scenario, who would guarantee that the few settlers who prefer not to leave their homes and to remain instead within the boundaries of the Palestinian state would not demand Israeli military protection, for example? In this scenario, the settlers would rightly claim that their lives are threatened by their frustrated neighbors. What Palestinian would then agree to the presence of foreign soldiers in the sovereign territory of his state?

Ultimately, Umm Ibrahim feels clearly uncomfortable with the question about the conditions for allowing the settlers to remain. "With all of the hatred, how could this be imagined? Their entire goal is to take our land. Evacuating all of the settlements? Not in my lifetime."

S., a woman of 65 from the village of Sinjel, is also skeptical about the possibility of ever seeing settlements dismantled. Her family's land is stuck between Eli and the illegal outpost Givat Haroeh. For years, the villagers have been unable to access their lands adjacent to the Shiloh settlement and its extensions, which were once unauthorized outposts and are now flourishing neighborhoods. She mumbles, as if to herself, "Never" when asked about dismantling settlements. This is not the answer political activists allow themselves to express openly. But the widespread conclusion among Palestinians is that the representatives of the Palestinian Authority already conceded at Camp David and Taba: They agreed that the large settlements would be included in the State of Israel.

Salah Ta'amri, a veteran Fatah leader and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, has been involved since his return to the country in 1995 in political efforts to stop Israeli construction in the settlements. He tried and failed. Tamri had just left a meeting in Nahalin, a village southwest of Bethlehem, when he was asked this question about the future of settlers in a Palestinian state. One could call his visit to Nahalin a condolence call over the continued loss of fertile and cultivated land - this time for the sake of the security fence being constructed around the Betar settlement.

"To stay and live among us?" he responded in a burst of laughter. "This would be a miracle. First of all, they don't like us and don't like our culture. They hate us. For them, we're just objects. But if their attitude changes, then welcome - they're invited to live in our state, with equal rights. It's a free economy. People can purchase apartments, live where they want and where it's comfortable for them."

Tamri did not give a direct reply to the question of whether he thinks it is possible that settlements that are part of the Israeli consensus (Givat Ze'ev, Ma'aleh Adumim, Efrata) will be evacuated. "Injustice does not cease to be injustice, only because it is big," he said.

Khalil Tufkaji is a geographer who worked for years at the Institution of Geographical Studies under the auspices of the Orient House, led by the late Faisal Husseini. Tufkaji collected every bit of information on land expropriation and settlement construction. Back in the early 1990s, he already prepared three scenarios for settlers remaining in a sovereign Palestinian entity: as residents (like Americans living in Japan), honoring Palestinian law; or as equal citizens in a Palestinian state; or Israel will pay the Palestinian state for a 20-year lease on the settlements. After these two decades pass, the settlements would pass into Palestinian hands. In return for an appropriate sum, he is convinced, most of the settlers who moved into settlements for economic reasons will also agree "to return home, to Israel."

As Husseini once said, Tufkaji adds, the Israelis who wish to do so will be able to remain in their homes and settlements, within the Palestinian state. But the settlements will not remain "deluxe ghettos" for Jews only. The settlements and their infrastructure, which Israel invested huge sums to develop while neglecting Palestinian cities and villages, would be opened to anyone wishing to reside there. "We are speaking about a future of partnership, where Palestinians and Jews live in the same building," Tufkaji said. He laughed when asked again and again if he believes this will happen, and when. n