Nine Days in the West Bank: The Issue of Israel’s Settlements

Above Image: Taken on the day I visited the Al Jalazoun Refugee Camp, which houses about 15,000 refugees. It is one of 19 such camps in the West Bank.The camp is right on the edge of an Israeli settlement. This picture gives a sense of how close they are, as the fenced wall to the right in the foreground is the wall of a refugee school for boys, while the Israeli settlement homes are in the background. Unsurprisingly, it is often a site of hostilities.


I recently had the opportunity (along with four other U.S. academics) to participate in an Education and Cultural Exchange Mission to the West Bank and Israel from July 22-30. The trip was made possible by the efforts of a colleague, Dr. Justin Bateh, a Palestinian-American born in the U.S., that I got to know while at a conference in Chicago, who connected me with the the program through the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine. The purpose of the trip was to gain first hand experience with some of the key issues that influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and current conditions in the West Bank as they relate to Israeli (and sometimes U.S.) policy.  

It was an extraordinarily eye-opening experience, that included meetings with the Mayors of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other smaller towns, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Education, the leaders of important NGOs working in the region, various Palestinian university officials and professors, and a member of the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s unicameral parliament). In addition to all of the famed holy sites, we also visited a refugee camp, a Bedouin community, some of the more troubled towns like Hebron, and interacted with everyday Palestinians who, of course, had a lot to tell us about their experiences.


Above Images: (L) Dinner and discussion with Mousa Hadeed, the Palestinian Christian Mayor of Ramallah. (R) We also had a more than one hour long meeting with Israeli Knesset (parliament) member Yousef Jabareen.

Where to begin?

Let me begin by acknowledging that I support Israel’s right to exist and protect its citizens. I am sympathetic to Israel and the challenges it has faced since 1948 in establishing a state for Jews in the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust. Like many Americans, accounts of terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens have always horrified me, and still do. Historically, many Arab nations in the region have wanted to see Israel’s downfall, as witnessed in its wars with its neighbors, and yet Israel has impressively (from a military point of view) stood firm. Israel’s founding in 1948 was made possible and recognized by a resolution of the United Nations in 1947 calling for a partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews. It seems to me that such a foundation (a peaceful resolution of the majority of the world’s nations) for statehood has at least as much legal and moral legitimacy in the modern era as the founding of many other modern nation-states that emerged as a result of conquest or revolution.

So for me, the issue is not if Israel has the right to exist. It does. But what, then, is the moral and territorial extent of its authority in the present?

By this, I am referring to its current situation with regard to the West Bank and Gaza. I did not travel to Gaza, so I want to limit my comments here to the West Bank. The dynamics of Israel’s relationship with Gaza seem to be increasingly quite different from the West Bank. Moreover, while there are many elements (deep seated mutual hostility, the extreme poverty of Palestinians, unequal water distribution, freedom of travel, etc…) of concern over Israel’s relationship with the West Bank, many of them interconnected, for now I want to limit my focus to just one issue- Jewish settlements in the West Bank and their impact on efforts to find a resolution to the now 68-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Map: Source : Keep in mind that the location of the actual settlement is not the only area under Israeli control, as much of the surrounding area of each settlement is made off limits by Israeli security concerns.


Based on what I viewed during my time there, discussing the issue with many informed people, as well as reading more thoroughly about the issue, it seems to me Israel is making a strategic mistake. The settlements have made the possibility of a two-state solution much more difficult and have inflamed tensions among Palestinians on account of the extraordinary day to day hardships they have imposed on their lives. One might argue, Palestinian anger or suffering aside, that the settlements are a necessity for the long term security of Israel, but that is a highly debatable argument (as we will see). Indeed, it can be convincingly argued that the settlements do more to harm Israel’s security than to help it. Most certainly they have tarnished Israel’s standing in much of the world, which itself negatively impacts Israel and its citizens in a number of ways.

But first a little background…

In 1967 Israel fought the Six Day War against the nations of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, during which it captured (among other territories) Gaza from Egypt and the West Bank & East Jerusalem from Jordan. It has maintained an occupation, a controversial term rejected by the Israelis, of those areas ever since. Since then, Israel has built and maintained hundreds of Jewish settlements in the West Bank housing around 400,000 settlers, often seizing Palestinian lands and destroying Palestinian homes for their construction and expansion. The settlements have been declared illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this claim.

Israel’s security arrangements for these settlements result in massive expense for Israel and significant hardships for local Palestinian populations, numbering as high as 2.5 million according to some estimates, to include the closure of convenient roads, delayed access to emergency services, the diversion of scarce water resources, and time-consuming and invasive security checkpoints, both stationary and temporary. The settlements are often elevated above Palestinian towns or cities, and sometimes expand to encircle them. In many cases, the settlements and Palestinian lands are very close by, resulting in varying levels of hostilities between the more militant settlers and Palestinians, both unhappy with each others presence. In many places large red signs are posted warning Israelis not to go into Palestinian areas and Palestinians understand these signs as a warning not to go into Israeli areas.


Image: Picture taken near during a visit to the Atouf Bedouin community near Jericho.

One extreme example of the friction caused by maintaining these settlements is found in the city of Hebron. There one finds checkpoints, concrete barriers, gates, segregated roads, and military bases all focused on securing a small settlement of perhaps 900 Jews in the heart of a Palestinian city with a population of well over 200,000. Please pause a moment to consider the type of security measures necessary for this situation.

On a day I was able to visit Hebron, our group had to follow detours due to unexpected road closures to finally enter the city. As we walked through the Old City parts of Hebron, past the venders and markets, we could feel the tension. The Palestinian population there is weary of the circumstances and inconveniences they live with daily as a result of the extraordinary security efforts carried out by perhaps 1600 Israeli soldiers on behalf of fewer than 900 settlers. Hebron, regardless of these problems, is a desirable location for a settlement for some Jews because it is said to house the tombs of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. For this reason, it is sometimes called the “cradle of Jewish civilization.”

Indeed, as a friend recently pointed out, it is worth noting that the settlers themselves, while they have financial incentives to live in the settlements, also often have ideological motivations. The West Bank covers Judea and Samaria, which is the name the Israelis still use for the area, and this is a place of extraordinary historical importance to all Jews and especially for religiously minded zionists willing to embrace the hardships of living there. Thus, strategic considerations alone are not solely what determines Israeli policy in the West Bank. Settlers and the Israeli Defense Forces go to great lengths to defend their otherwise highly vulnerable and provocative presence in places like Hebron. The extensive security for the settlement is in part justified, in addition to poor modern relations, based on the events of a horrific pogrom in 1929 that saw the deaths of 64 Jews in the city and is embedded in the historical memory of the settlers there.

Yet the violence has not always been one sided. At the University of Hebron, I was given a tour of the campus, which included a memorial to Palestinian students killed and injured (3 dead, 50 wounded), when militant Israeli settlers, not Israeli troops, attacked the campus. Indeed, I was often told by Palestinians that the settlers in the region are sometimes far more violent or aggressive than the government troops that protect them.


Image: Memorial on the campus of Hebron University to the 3 students killed and 50 injured by an attack of Israeli settlers in 1983.

The settlement is walled off from the rest of the city by high gates, barricaded roads, and many armed check points. Yet the Palestinian homes are very close to the settlement. Our group was invited to the rooftop of a Palestinian home next door to the settlement. I felt as though I could almost reach out and touch the walls of the settlement apartments from that location, although in reality it was separated by an alley that was perhaps 8 to 10 feet. We could have, however, looked into the windows of the settlement homes if the blinds had not been drawn. At one point, from my rooftop location I glanced down and could partly see Jewish settlers in a courtyard. I did not want to stare too long, nor actually try to reach across the distance dividing the two building as I mentioned above, as there are high tensions in this part of the city and it would not be unreasonable to think an Israeli soldier may have been keeping an eye on me through his rifle scope.

Later, I recalled asking a senior U.S. scholar of the modern Middle East, who was attending the trip with me and had traveled to the West Bank on many other occasions, if the argument that Hebron was an important site historically for Jews was significant enough to justify the current situation. He dismissed the argument by responding along the lines of “If that is the measure by which the various religious groups can settle on lands in the West Bank or Israel, then certainly Palestinian Christians or Muslims could make the same claim to return to many of their lands.”

Because the settlements require extraordinary security measures, they negatively affect the day to day lives of many Palestinians. Indeed, massive numbers of Palestinians have been “administratively detained,” incarcerated, or harmed. An average of 81 Palestinians per week are arrested each week in the West Bank, out of security concerns, with about 7000 in prison at any time.  One young 24-year-old Palestinian who was filming part of our trip, told us of how he had been imprisoned by the Israelis on nine occasions. In his most recent example, he was imprisoned for four days for filming the infamous wall that was supposed to run along the original 1967 borders to divide Israeli controlled areas from Palestinian areas, but instead juts out as much as 30 miles in some places to gobble up additional Palestinian lands. I was often taking pictures of the same wall during my visit and warned by locals, “Don’t get too close.”


Image: Picture of “the Wall” taken near Ramallah.

The term “occupation” to describe Israeli efforts in the West Bank remains controversial, with many U.S. officials, for example, referring to the West Bank as a “disputed territory” rather than an “occupied territory.” Based on my experiences interacting with Palestinians from all walks of life, from the cashier at the little grocery store a few blocks from my hotel in Ramallah, to the elected Mayors of multiple Palestinian cities, it is clear that Palestinians (at least) see themselves as under occupation by a foreign army, who controls its roads, its economy, its trade, the travel of its citizens, and its natural resources to include even their aquifers. I saw and experienced enough while in the West Bank to confirm this is all true and much of this relates, in one way or another, to the need for security for the settlements.

The continual building and expansion of settlements serves as a continuing provocation to the Palestinians, as year after year Palestinian land and natural resources are taken from their control and turned over to the settlers. The settlements are sometimes built around Palestinian towns, gradually encircling them, and always on elevated positions on top of hills overlooking Palestinians. Because of the highly unequal distribution of water in the region, a major source of resentment among Palestinians at the moment, the Israeli settlements are surprisingly green and lush, making the Palestinian towns and villages look dry and barren in comparison. Indeed, one way to tell apart the Israel settlements from the Palestinian towns, aside from the greenery of the areas, is by the roofs of homes and buildings. Palestinian homes are marked by multiple water barrels that dot their roofs to collect rain water to help them make it from week to week, whereas Israeli settlers have no such concerns.


Image: A typical water tank found on top of Palestinian homes throughout the West Bank.

From these elevated settlements, the sewer waste of the settlements is sometimes dumped in such a way that it flows down to pollute Palestinian orchards and grazing lands downstream. On viewing a site where this problem had occurred, I heard one young Palestinian-American woman (a Christian from Chicago attending the tour with us), say to her mother, “They’re literally shitting on us.”

They also see the continual Israeli seizure of Palestinian lands and demolition of their homes, as an unbearable insult, as they are replaced by lush, green, Israeli settlements housing around 400,000 settlers that have led to Israeli control (by one estimate) of around 60% of the West Bank, leaving the other 40% for the more than two million remaining Palestinians. Indeed, I have spoken to many Palestinian-Americans, including the above mentioned business professor at my college, who tell me of the land their families once owned in the region prior to Israeli seizure of it, prompting them to move to the United States.

It is truly a complex and ugly situation for the Palestinian people. By all appearances, through slow and steady encroachment on Palestinian lands, Israel seems to be using settlements as a means of further uprooting the Palestinian people and permanently colonizing their land. It seems to be very effective and if this keeps up, then I can see a future where Palestinians possess only small enclaves of the West Bank, which will undoubtedly be hotbeds of anger and radicalism, with the broader territory controlled by the Israelis.

But are the settlements an unfortunate necessity for Israel’s security, as is sometimes claimed?

Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, who is currently a visiting professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University, has argued the settlements do more to harm Israel’s security than help it. In a recent article for Project Syndicate, titled “Israel’s Government Hawks and Military Doves,” he makes the case that the higher ups in the Israeli military often opposes the Israeli government’s policies as they relate to the settlements for reasons of security. Rather than helping to secure Israel, they add to its many concerns and make it less stable. He argues that Israel’s military, and broader defense establishment, view peace with the Palestinians as essential to Israel’s long term security, and often support political measures that would end the occupation. Thus, the defense establishment, focused purely on matters of security, is often at odds with the political leadership, which is inspired by religious or cultural motives that go well beyond purely security issues.

In particular, Kurtzer highlights the views of the now late Meir Dagan, a former Major General of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and head of the Mossad for eight years (2002 to 2011). Certainly Dagan’s credentials, in terms of Israeli security, are unimpeachable.

In response to arguments that returning to the original 1967 borders would leave Israel without “defensible borders,” Dagan had argued that the IDF could secure Israel’s borders regardless of where they were drawn. Moreover, he argued that the notion of “defensible borders” was a “canard” that “ignores the intentions and capabilities of the party on the other side of the border.” Dagan argued that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would significantly reduce the burden of defending the border because Israel would have a serious cross border partner with a similar (perhaps an even greater) interest in avoiding conflict. Thus, for this reason, a Palestinian security force would provide not only security for its people, but a significant degree of security for Israel as well.

Yet it should be noted that even the Israeli government, at least in its statements during negotiations with the Palestinians, does not seem to view the settlements or occupation of the West Bank as essential for its security. As recently as 2014, for example, The Times of Israel reported that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had reached a point where both sides had agreed to a plan where Israel would give up control of 90% of the West Bank, to include the removal of many settlements, in exchange for a peace agreement that would allow Israel control over the remaining 10% of territories. The talks were held up by the fact that the Palestinians wanted to allow Israel to retain control of only 3% of the West Bank.

In other words, only a very small percentage of the land of the West Bank (7%) was a genuine sticking point in terms of Israeli security.

Those sympathetic to Israel might argue that asking for only 10% of the West Bank to assure their security needs is reasonable while those sympathetic to the Palestinians might argue that giving up 3% of their land to Israel is more than generous. In either case, such a sticking point seems highly regrettable in light of the plight of both the Palestinian people, who suffer from all the effects associated with an occupied society, and the Israelis, who must spend a fortune on security and risk the the lives of their soldiers and settlers by maintaining the dreadful status quo.

I viewed and considered a lot on this trip. It was exhausting at times, continually moving around the territory from one town to another, speaking to person to person. Some days we would be active from 8:00 am until 10:00 pm at night, but it also provided such a unique insight on events in this troubled part of the world that I was grateful for the opportunity. I also realize this is a deeply complex issue and I have spoken with experts on both sides of the issue who have devoted their lives to the study of it, reminding me of the limits of my expertise here. In light of this, I certainly welcome any readers to contact me, by email, with any concerns or comments. If they are thoughtful and well intended, I would be happy to add them as an addendum to this post.