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Occupation magazine - Settlements

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What does it mean to disengage?
What does it mean to disengage?
April 15, 2005

As is often the case when I return to the U.S. after a period of time away, I am surprised by the lack of substantial information in the local press---even when, the local press happens to be the much-acclaimed Washington Post, which ran an article on the Gaza settlers within days of my return to the U.S. Most notably, I am amazed at what information is not included in the articles. The question of omission is often quite interesting to me, a PhD candidate working on her dissertation research, as it gives a sense of the writer s orientation, or more specifically, how they define the topic about which they are writing. In the essay that follows, I hope to note the main ways in which these articles bear little to no resemblance to life on the ground in Israel/Palestine as I have experienced it during my seven months of living in Jerusalem conducting field research on Israeli and Palestinian civil society groups working for a just and lasting peace.

I see the Gaza disengagement plan in much broader term than do most people in the U.S. The brilliance of Ariel Sharon s plan is that it gets the world to focus narrowly on Gaza and forget what is going on in the West Bank and inside Israel. What is going on in the rest of the land of historic Palestine? [1]

First of all, the settlement project is continuing at an impressive rate even as Sharon makes noises about disengagement from Gaza. One must remember that ALL of the settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza are ILLEGAL according to international law. Many international resolutions, statements, and agreements call for a halt to settlement construction, including the Oslo Agreements and the Road Map. However, Israel has continued to build settlements despite such international views. During the years of the Oslo peace process, Israel built new settlements and expanded existing ones at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, with the exception of East Jerusalem and land belonging to villages abutting Jerusalem [2], Israel has not annexed any of the land that it occupied in 1967. Thus, settler claims that they built their settlements on unowned state land is misleading. Figures that tally the number of settlers living in the West Bank are similarly misleading at times. Often, such numbers omit the settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem, as for many Israelis even those in the peace camp these settlements are seen as Jerusalem neighborhoods and not as settlements, even though they are built in the West Bank on land confiscated from Palestinian villages. While places like French Hill (one of the first settlements built after the 1967 war to connect Hebrew University with West Jerusalem), which are highly integrated into the city and include Palestinian and Jewish inhabitants alike, are in a slightly different category than extreme ideological settlements like Yitzhar outside of Nablus, and therefore will need a different kind of solution, it is important to keep facts straight.

The Israeli government (aided by the current U.S. administration, which has changed decades of U.S. foreign policy stands vis-`-vis the settlement issue by promising Ariel Sharon that Israel can hold on to major population centers in the West Bank) has pursued a policy of clouding the issue of the settlements in several major ways. One, it uses the term illegal outpost to differentiate between government-sanctioned settlements and those which have sprouted up more independently. Such nomenclature implies that a) some settlements are legal (as already noted, they are all illegal according to international law) and b) the Israeli government is doing something to rein in these outposts. However, such outposts, some including only four people, automatically receive electricity, water, and Israeli army protection. The Sasson report, commissioned by the Israeli government, recently revealed the extent to which the government has supported and sanctioned settlement activity, even in the case of the outposts. Some of these outposts have committed egregious crimes, such as the Havat Ma on outpost near the Palestinian village of Tuwani, from where masked attackers brutally assaulted Christian Peacemaker Teams volunteers Chris Brown and Kim Lamberty, both of whom are U.S. citizens, in September 2004 while they were accompanying Palestinian children on their way to school. The outpost of Havat Gilad, in the Nablus district near the settlements of Yitzhar and Qadumim and the Palestinian villages of Jit and Farata, is one caravan, 4 people, and has been removed by the Israeli army twice, with no success. It is still there. Nothing but this one caravan and an old school bus, and yet extensive army coordination is required for Palestinian farmers to tend to their fields, as they are often attacked by the settlers. I went to Farata with a small group organized by Rabbis for Human Rights in order to provide some degree of protection to the farmers while they plowed their land. We were also supposed to be with the farmers in Jit, but the army said that they could only provide protection (from the four settlers in one caravan) in once place, and so the farmers from Jit were told to go back home, they were not allowed on their fields that day. It is hard for many to believe that Sharon will really remove the settlers in Gaza when he has not even been able to muster enough political will to successfully remove small, illegal outposts such as this.

The Gaza disengagement is also a distraction from construction plans in what is known as the E-1 area east of Jerusalem, connecting the Israeli municipal boundary with Ma ale Adumim. Ma ale Adumim is a small city of its own. Currently with 35,000 residents and slated to expand to 70,000, those who live in Ma ale Adumim are mostly quality of life settlers rather than ideological settlers such as those in Yitzhar, Ma on and Qedumim. Most of those living in Ma ale Adumim live there because of the heavy government subsidies that make living there much more affordable. Rent and taxes are considerably lower in Ma ale Adumim (and other Jerusalem-area settlements, such as Har Homa, French Hill, Neve Yaacov, Ramot and Pisgat Zeev) which makes it an attractive place for families and young couples trying to make a start. In these difficult economic times (Israel s economic situation is currently quite grim, largely due to the billions of dollars being poured into the construction of the Separation Barrier, new checkpoint terminals and the on-going cost of the occupation), affordable housing is even more in demand. The E-1 plan will basically bisect the Northern and Southern parts of the West Bank. This means that Palestinians from Bethlehem, Hebron, and their surrounding villages cannot travel to visit friends, family, business associates or government representatives in Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin or Tulkarem, and vice versa. Of course, it goes without saying that it is virtually impossible for Palestinians from either North or South West Bank cities to travel to Jerusalem or Gaza. For those in Gaza, it is impossible to travel even from one city to another, and many spend entire days at Gaza checkpoints, never making it to work or school as a result.

The settlement expansion is linked to the construction of the Separation Barrier (also called the “separation fence” or the “apartheid wall”). In many places new settlements popping up in land between the pre-1967 boundary (also called the Green Line due to the color demarcating the armistice line after the 1948 war) and the route of the Separation Barrier. These new settlements obscure the boundaries and create new facts on the ground strengthening Israeli claims to annexing the territory. I have heard many say, oh, but the new route of the barrier is so much better, after the ruling of Israel’s Supreme Court. However, the “8%” quoted does not include the fenced-off settlements in the West Bank, such as Ariel, which are not directly connected to the primary route of the barrier. It also does not include the large stretch of land in the Jordan Valley that is off limits to Palestinians and is home to many Israeli settlements. It also does not include all of the land around Jerusalem which is cut off, as Israel considers Jerusalem to be Israeli land already, unlike the international community and Palestinian land owners, who see it as part of the Occupied West Bank. Even if this figure was “just” eight percent of the West Bank, this 8% includes the major water aquifers of the West Bank as well as prime agricultural land, separated from the villages that own the land. Although Israel claims these farmers can access their lands through a system of gates, the gates are not opened according to a reliable schedule and only allow for passage at a few very limited times of the day. In addition, to pass through the gates requires a permit, which is very difficult to obtain. Many are denied permits without being given a reason, even if the farmer in question has no criminal record. Proportionally speaking, 8% of the West Bank compares to the United States losing land “only” equivalent in size to the state of Texas. Considering that Palestinians already compromised by accepting 22% of historic Palestine, recognizing the state of Israel on the remaining 78% of the land, they are not willing to sacrifice another 8%, especially land as agriculturally rich as this.

There are a few additional issues that should be pointed out regarding the impact of the Gaza disengagement plan, as currently envisioned, on Israeli citizens themselves. First, while I can sympathize with the sadness of the Gaza settlers faced with losing their homes, and feel compassion for the children wetting their beds each night, several clarifications need to be made. One, the Gaza settlers chose to live in these settlements, intentionally moving into Palestinian territory in part due to the government subsidies provided to them. Palestinian residents of Gaza are also regularly forcibly evicted from their homes, as large residential areas in Rafah and Jabaliya have been cleared by Israeli military bulldozers for “security reasons.” Second, the Gaza settlers are being paid large quantities of money and being relocated into new homes. While the government has not finalized where the settlers will be, this is in part due to the fact that they are providing the settlers with options. Settlers are given additional bonuses if they move to the Galilee, Negev or Golan Heights. Why these areas? Israel has a long-standing policy to “Judaize” these regions. The Golan Heights is Syrian land occupied by Israel in 1967, also rich in water resources and strategic due to its elevation and Mt. Hermon, the highest peak in the area. Much of the Galilee was slated to be part of the Palestinian state in the 1947 UN partition plan, and has a high Palestinian Arab population. Israel has encouraged Jewish settlement in the region in an effort to tighten Israeli government control in the area. Israel also has a Jewish settlement policy in the Negev, where Jewish settlers get free land and are immediately connected to electricity and water. Many Bedouin citizens living in the Negev, however, live in villages “unrecognized” by the Israeli government. Thus, even though these citizens pay taxes, they do not receive any state services, including water, electricity and health services. In addition, their simple homes are slated for demolition because the government wants to centralize the Arab population into already crowded and drug-infested villages so that the land can be used to encourage further Jewish settlement.

Finally, I would like to close this reflection by mentioning research conducted by an Israeli Jewish professor comparing the discourse of the Jewish settlers living in Gush Katif (the main Gaza settlement bloc) with the discourse of the leaders of the Yesha council (the settler council primarily based in the West Bank). He noted not only that the Gaza settlers spoke in local terms, in terms of attachment to a specific home location, whereas the Yesha Council thinks in terms of the settlement project writ large and the possibility of jumping from settlement to settlement across Greater Israel. Consequently, the settlers, whose attachment to home can be compared to attachment to a beloved person, should be allowed time to detach themselves from their home, mentally, and then prepare to separate. However, because there has been so much ambiguity about the plan, they have not had psychological time to prepare for moving. This is compounded with a sense of neglect and humiliation because they feel that no one consulted or talked with us. They cannot understand what happened to the settlement tradition. One minute they were the new pioneers and their status was elevated from Oriental Jews living in periphery towns and the next minute they were back at the bottom of the status pile, seen as the devils of it all. The professor, as well as another Jewish Israeli present at the meeting, suggested that in terms of the disengagement plan, the deeper social, psychological processes are more important than the political ones, but most people in Israel are not talking about these things. He thinks perhaps Sharon is hoping that the large trauma of the withdrawal will show the world that a West Bank withdrawal will be impossible. Thus, his government does not try to ease the trauma or distress for the settlers.

Disengagement sends a signal. It says we do not want to talk to you or interact with you in any way. This sentiment is echoed in the separation barrier and in the legal restrictions on (non-settler) Israelis entering the Occupied Territories or Palestinian-controlled areas. In Hebrew, the Gaza plan is not called disengagement, but rather “withdrawal” which is another mis-nomenclature. According to the plan, Israel remains in control of the borders, the coast, and airspace. It reserves the right to destroy existing settlement infrastructure and to re-enter Gaza at any time deemed necessary for security reasons. In exchange, it rids itself of the governance headache of 1.5 million restless, poverty-stricken, caged-up Palestinians and receives accolades (and lots of money!) from the international community for the “hard work” of removing a small number of Gaza settlers, most of whom are quality of life (not ideological) settlers and willing to leave for compensation.

[1] By historic Palestine I refer to the land included in the British Mandate called Palestine. All of those living in this geographic area Jews, Muslim and Christians called themselves Palestinians and saw themselves as residents of Palestine.
[2] What is considered the Jerusalem municipal border by Israel since it occupied the city in 1967 greatly exceeds what was considered to be East Jerusalem under Jordanian rule (1948-1967).
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