The Beginning of a Settlement — Dispatch from Palestine

Mahmoud’s family lives one Palestinian hill over from a newly-forming illegal Jewish settlement. Six Jewish settlers arrived about a year ago with tents and made a primitive campsite. All year they prayed on the hill in religious pilgrimage.

All settlements start this way.

The original owner has a claim on this land and papers originating from the Ottoman empire. For 100 years the owner transferred documents through successive reigning states: Turks, Brits, Jordanians, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Eventually the settlers brought a generator so they had heating and electricity. Then they built a special temporary shelter with aluminum siding. Then, on the pretense of a threat from surrounding Palestinian soldiers, they brought the Israeli army bulldozers, which rammed down any remaining obstructions on the hill and broadened the roads for the settlers to drive on. The locals set up a civil administration building with help from the Palestinian Authority as a work station to assert their legal land claims.

It was bulldozed too.

When the settlers moved in, the local Palestinian families and land owners gathered to protest but the settlers threatened them with assault weapons. It became too dangerous to try and stop them. Later, when the settlers tried to hire Palestinians to help them enhance their structures, the families refused. It would be a great shame to assist such aggressive, illegal neighbors.

When Palestinians locals walk too close to the settler property the settlers brandish guns. The locals now stay indoors if the settlers are visible outside their shelter. The locals feel they are effectively under curfew.

Mahmoud says that the settlers speed excessively down the roads the bulldozers cleared for them. One day a local Palestinian approached a settler and deferentially spoke. “Please, can you drive slower here? You might kill a child or my chickens and farm animals.” The settler leered, “You asked me this today. If you stop me and talk to me again I’ll kill you.”  The neighbor courageously reported the incident to the leading settler, who dismissed it breezily. “That guy is crazy. Don’t listen to him.” There are only six settlers.

This year in May, when school was finishing its spring semester, a schoolchild threw a single stone at a settler car. The Israeli army returned and pulled ten Palestinian children from their end-of-year exams and booked them for 10 years in a disciplinary youth detention. Families came to argue for their children. One man said to a soldier, “Please stop this! It was just one child who threw one stone!” He is still in jail.

Now the local families leave the settlers alone because they don’t need any more problems.

The settler vision is not just particular to small groups of land grabbers. It is a vision of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu. The government has the power to stop these illegal settlers. But instead it sends them water, electricity, civil services, and endorses army services under the guise of protection.

I ask Mahmoud, who lives on the hill adjacent from the settlers, what it might take to live peacefully with them. He exhales a long rueful laugh. “They can’t live peacefully. They don’t believe in peace. They aim their guns at everything that moves. They don’t love Israel either—they are rejecting it. They left it and they have a very hard life here.”

Intrigued by his seeming compassion I ask why he thinks they have a hard life. After all, they’re living on principles, and their government equips them with resources. Isn’t that an okay life? “They have a bad life,” the man replied. “They are hungry. Not just for food. They are not relaxed. They are troubled. They have been fighting such a wrong fight with so much energy that they’ve forgotten what is right.”

I ask if he has ever met any non-settler Israelis. “In the past we had Israeli friends. They always offered help. They are good people—they are human, human, they are sons of Adam!” His Israeli friends still visit sometimes but he cannot visit them. But they have something in common. “We can’t bear the settlers. When we talk about the settlers, the Israelis have the same reaction. The settlers are always the problem—they are everyone’s biggest problem.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “The Beginning of a Settlement — Dispatch from Palestine

  1. Jenn,

    Thank you so much for this frustratingly powerful account of the Jewish settlement issue in Palestine. The settlements that have sprung up and been institutionally supported by the Israeli government over the last 20-30 years are problematic not only to international law, but they are diametrically opposed to the long lasting, sustainable peace in which both sides so desperately claim to desire. While I cannot logically explain the heart-wrenching story of the children who were arrested for throwing stones-such an innocent and care-free act for much of the world’s youth, I can add that often the IDF are placed with the impossible task of trying to maintain the peace between settlers and Palestinians. Keep in mind, soldiers are conscripted and trained to follow orders, not interpret the morality or even legality of policy, a fact many who never served in the military simply don’t understand. As an Israeli-American who served proudly in the IDF, many of my fellow soldiers are less than thrilled about serving in the West Bank, but to quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ours is not to ask why, but ours is to do an die.” Many Israelis still view service in the West Bank as a necessary action in protecting Israel’s borders and civilian population regardless of how it adversely affects the Palestinian population.

    1. Dear David, Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I have thought about it for a few days. In some ways what you say makes sense to me. But I also wonder about the role of conscientious objection and I cannot help but recall instances in history where “just following orders” led to compromising actions for the military soldiers as well as the civilians affected. I don’t know how to put it more delicately. Can you help me differentiate these associations from the kind of IDF service you speak of? And what sort of leniency is there in the IDF for young soldiers to refuse to participate in certain scenarios? I hope you can help me understand more, and again, I really appreciate your response and openness. Thank you–Jenn

      1. Jenn,

        Of course, one can refuse to obey an order, but an arrest and court martial will follow. One must be very confident surrounding the moral high ground of their objection and be willing to pay a hefty price during their military service (even if found innocent) and long after one has been discharged for their convictions.

        Remember, if everyone protested and refused every order they were issued, nothing would ever be accomplished and the country’s defense would fall apart; it’s a tough mindset for civilians to understand. Freedom of speech and individuality are shunned in the military and the sad, scary fact is that following orders saves lives even at the cost of others lives. I personally was never asked to do anything I felt was immoral.

        Jenn, I’m interested to hear you further explain your historical understanding and mind sight of “just following orders.” Are there specific historical parallels that you’re drawing from when you use this phrase?

        All the best,

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