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What The Left – And The Right – Get Wrong About The Settlements

In the last few years, many pro-Israel organizations and activists have adopted progressive language in an attempt to appeal to millennials and progressives — audiences which they they have lost due to years of promoting a right wing, conservative agenda.

They’ve realized that promoting a “fun” Israel without addressing progressive issues is a failed approach, and they are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new support while they avoid discussing the controversial issues like the plague.

Map of the West Bank. Israeli settlements are in pink. Image by Wikimedia Commons

One of the core issues, of course, is the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While many organizations and activists correctly state that the settlements “are not the obstacle to peace,” they are definitely an obstacle, and one that must be addressed.

I was born and raised in Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Forces for almost five years in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. And while I’ve spent years defending the state of Israel against those who seek to delegitimize it, from my work in the West Bank as an IDF officer, I remember distinctly how hard it was to work with many of the settlers. I remember how they mistreated IDF soldiers, resorting to rock throwing and other disgraceful behaviors.

My experience in Hebron and Ramallah made me extremely skeptical of the settlement movement and of its leadership. In Hebron, part of my work as a humanitarian officer included regular tours of the settlements in order to monitor any new illegal construction and report it, an activity the settlers didn’t like it all. So much so, in fact, my nickname was “Judge Goldstone,” the judge who chaired the controversial UN inquiry into the Gaza-Israel war in 2008.

These experiences helped me understand something important: The debate over settlements in the public sphere has been reduced to two strongly opinionated and loud sides who refuse to see the middle ground.

On one side is the radical left, using settlements as a tool to smear Israel. They use the settlements to raise questions about the right of the Jewish people to self determination in their ancestral homeland, and to diminish the responsibility and role of the Palestinian leadership in preventing peace with Israel.

But on the other side, the radical right wing is just as intolerant as the left, with supporters of the settlements shouting from the rooftops about how Jews are indigenous to the land and the Palestinians are not, often even denying the existence of a “Palestinian people,” concluding that ultimately they have no right to a state of their own.

Both sides are wrong.

There is no shortage of false claims made by the far left against settlements. The claim that the settlements are “destroying any chance for peace” places the responsibility for making peace entirely on Israel. The notion that Israel alone holds the key to peace is ridiculous. If we did, we would have made peace already. In fact, we did — with Egypt, with Jordan, and we tried in 2005 with Gaza. Yet in Gaza we still ended up with a terror organization controlling the strip, and even when we are forced to defend ourselves from Gaza, we are still criticized — so there is no evidence to suggest that a complete unilateral withdrawal form the West Bank would bring peace. Indeed, there is only evidence to suggest the opposite.

But the right is wrong about the settlements, too.

What’s wrong with the settlements is not that Jews should not be allowed to live there (or anywhere actually); it’s that an entire nation of people has lived in the same region for centuries and is also seeking self determination. The fact that the Palestinians leaders are “not ready for peace” or that portions of the Palestinian public don’t support the Jewish right to self-determination does not negate the fact that Palestinians, like Jews, also have a right to self-determination, and, like Jews, they have connection to the land — even if the Jews were here first.

This is the major problem at the heart of the settler movement. Just as some anti-Semites on the left deny the Jewish right to self determination, the settlement movement is not only an obstacle to Palestinian statehood, but it actively denies the right of self-determination to the Palestinian people.

The settlement movement often responds to criticism by presenting evidence that the settlements are legal according to the international law. And indeed there is a case to be made that they are.

But it is by far the minority legal opinion. When they are challenged on their right to build in unannexed territories across the Green Line, settlers often resort to demonizing and attacking those who question them, falsely labeling opponents of settlements as “anti-Semites” or “anti-Israel activists.”

Many settlers claim that they have a biblical right to the land, and accordingly must “resettle” it. But even if one accepts the Jewish right to biblical Israel, that’s not an excuse to build settlements on unannexed territory any more than it is an excuse to build settlements in the parts of Jordan which are also biblical Israel.

Most recently, the leaders of the settlement movement love to talk about the “indigeneity” of the Jewish people to the land, piggybacking on an issue of progressive interest in the West.

It is absolutely true that Jews came from Judea, and it is true that Jews are indigenous to Israel. But that simply has no bearing on the right to build exclusively Jewish communities over the Green Line today.

There’s a deep irony to settlers bringing up their indigeneity to the land; the vast majority of settlers I have ever encountered in 28 years of living in Israel are of exclusively Ashkenazi descent, often having immigrated from North America. It’s not just anecdotal. Statistic show that the United States comes in first place when it comes to the number of immigrants moving to the settlements.

It’s strange for American Jews making Aliyah to claim they are more “indigenous” to the area than Palestinians who have lived there for generations.

Time and time again, I hear representatives of the settlements claim that the Palestinians had no country, no official language, not collective identity, and that they came to this land from other parts of the Middle East.

Yes, all those things maybe true, but they absolutely do not negate the fact that there are, according to the UN, 2.8 million Palestinians today who identify as a people and have for decades. And they have strong, if not indigenous, ties to land.

When challenged, settlement movement representatives love to point out that Palestinian leaders demand a Jew-free state, which is something Palestinian leaders have repeatedly stated, and something which is totally unacceptable.

But again, this bears no relation to the legitimacy of settlements. In fact, it proves their illegitimacy.

How many Palestinians or Israeli-Arabs live in settlement communities? These are Palestinian-free communities which have selection committees to decide who “belongs” in these communities, and who does not “belong” (Hint: it’s Arabs!).

While many settlers genuinely believe they are not racist and they have no problem hiring or being “friends” with Arabs, they would never accept actually living next door to Palestinian families or having them live in their communities — something which, ironically, they have in common with the elitist left in Israel. And while they will claim security concerns about having Palestinians living in their communities, Tag Mechir terror attacks by settlers against Palestinians are on the rise, too. They would have to accept Palestinians wanting a Juden-rein (or at least, settler-rein) state according to this logic — something I refuse to do.

The settlers are also disingenuous and contradictory in their treatment of the Palestinians. They place full responsibility for making peace on the Palestinians, a people whom they deny exists altogether, with leaders whom they believe are not equipped or willing to make peace. As Minister Naftali Bennett made clear few months ago in New York, “I’m not about to carve out the heart of Israel, Judea and Samaria, and hand it over to the Palestinians and pray that, somehow, this time they will not turn it into a terror base… No, we are done with that.”

The settlement movement accepts zero responsibility for the problems they create by building and living in settlements, and continues to place pressure on the Israeli government to expand and build new settlements, while throwing a tantrum whenever anyone dares to question the wisdom of deciding to live on land which isn’t annexed by the state of Israel.

At the end of the day, I agree that Jews who are set on living in these specific areas should be allowed to do so, but at their own risk and not with the involvement or backing of the Israeli government. If settlers insist of living in areas that are likely to be part of a future Palestinian state, they should consider the possibility that they may become Jewish minorities in a Palestinian state, not assume the opposite.

Modern political realities are not the same thing as a historical (or “biblical”) right the land. After all, a large part of Jordan was also part of the kingdom of ancient Israel. If settlers wanted to build up a Jewish community there, I would support their right to live there, but no one should expect that they would be citizens of Israel.

When trying to find middle ground on the issue of settlements, the left must also be realistic. Opposition to all settlements, even if correct in principle, is not productive for a peaceful future. The Palestinian leadership and Israel both know that the major settlement blocks such as Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim and Gush Etzion will all be a part of Israel in any peace agreement. It was already agreed upon in Oslo. However, that’s not a reason to not speak out vociferously against further new settlements, legal or illegal, and of course illegal settlements should be condemned and evacuated.

Those who are not a part of either extreme viewpoint must understand that there are two sides to this situation, and to all the questions that entrench it. Who is right? Who was here first? Who is more racist? Who is less radical? These are all questions that are meant to further the status quo and prevent a real solution to this conflict.

But if we are serious about solving it and reaching an agreement, we must address this crucial issue and not shy away from it, even if it is a painful one.

For the self-proclaimed “progressive” Jewish pro-Israel groups, and for all those who claim to stand for the values of a democratic and Jewish Israel, this is your litmus test: Do you support the right of self-determination for all people? Or only for Jews?

Hen Mazzig is an Israeli writer, public speaker and strategic communications consultant from Tel Aviv. His company was hired by The Israeli Government Advertising Agency as a consultant in 2017 and in March-May 2018 to advise on campaign to combat antisemitism as well as campaign that included LGBTQ issues. Follow him on Twitter @HenMazzig.


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