You’ve heard about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, but if you haven’t seen them, you haven’t seen them.
They are clusters of houses set apart from their Palestinian surroundings by chain-link fences topped by coils of concertina wire. At the entrance is a barrier, and overlooking the houses, or overlooking the rocky approaches, is a guard tower of the kind you see at a military base, and indeed a military base is often nearby.
If you tell your driver you’d like to stop and have a closer look, he says, “You want to get shot?”
Nearby there is inevitably a Palestinian town or village, and you learn that the settlement was built on land belonging to that town or village — not by purchase or negotiation but simply by force.
Israeli Jews moved in with the encouragement of the government, or occasionally without the encouragement of the government, and started building, and the Israeli Defense Forces protected them, regardless of government encouragement or lack thereof.
You see Israeli soldiers lollygagging around Ben Yehuda in downtown Jerusalem, and they look for all the world like college students on break, but once you cross over into the West Bank, it’s a different story.
In the West Bank, part of the once-was and now-aspiring nation of Palestine, they are armed guards for the pioneering land-robbers known delicately as settlers. These settlers occupy the land of people who have lived on it and cultivated it for centuries. They come from Russia and Europe and America, carrying guns, and they say it’s ours. We are the children of Israel. We’re coming home, and tough luck for you Arabs.
Strolling through the congested market of Nablus, I fell into conversation with a cheese vendor who told me he lives in a village not far away, that after a Jewish settlement was built nearby he and his fellow villagers were restricted in the hours they could cultivate their own olive trees — from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. only, and for just one week. As a result olives are often left on the trees to rot.
What is the reason for such a restriction? They don’t know.
By what earthly right does one tribe invade the land of another tribe and dictate when people may work their land? That’s a question that it’s not politic to raise.
But if you don’t obey, you’re likely to get shot.
I earlier had a meeting with the prime minister’s international press adviser — not at my initiative — and asked him how it would ever be possible for Israel to give up the West Bank in peace negotiations if 300,000 Jewish land-occupiers are settled there and more are moving in all the time, and he asked me in return why it should be presumed that no Jews would live in a Palestinian state if 1.5 million Arabs live in Israel.
I didn’t have an answer, but my guide to the West Bank, a Palestinian who works for a nonprofit housing agency, did: There’s a big difference between seizing someone else’s land as Jewish settlers do, and, on the other hand, remaining behind when your country is overrun and most of the population flees, which is what the Arabs of Israel did back in 1948.
The Israeli government says in effect we took your land in the first instance and chased most of you off it. Now we occupy still more of your land, surround it with barbed
wire and guard towers and shoot at you if come near, with the result that some of you are living among us in what we call Israel, and some of us are living among you in what you think is Palestine. Who could object to that?
I suggested to my guide that this ongoing Jewish settlement of Arab-Palestinian land in the West Bank amounts to a continuing conquest, and he agreed.
Jews from abroad conquered a hunk of Arab land in 1948, conquered more of it in 1967, and continue to conquer it, piecemeal, through the creeping expansion of Jewish-only settlements, belligerently cut off from their Arab neighbors.
Palestinian Arabs who get in the way, if they are not shot, will at least have their olive trees cut down, which is a continuing tactic of the settlers.
Keep in mind that the Jewish settlers are armed, the Palestinian villagers for the most part are not, and one of the jobs of Israeli soldiers is to make sure things stay that way, which they accomplish by breaking down doors and ransacking houses, without warrants, without charges, without any legal formalities. Just by main force and as the prerogative of conquerors.
I dimly understood this before I came here, but I never gave it a great deal of thought. I figured you had your religious-tribal fanatics on one side and your religious-tribal fanatics on the other side, and it wasn’t my fight. There was nothing I could do about it, and I wasn’t going to worry my head.
Now I see things in a new light, having seen with my own eyes.
In one day of driving around Ramallah and Nablus and surrounding hills, I saw dozens of these land-occupation settlements. Some of them looked like tidy housing developments, some looked like junky trailer camps but all of them were fortresses, with their barbed wire and their guard towers — not established with the slightest effort to be good neighbors or to get to know the people they had displaced — if such a thing were possible — but just flat-out Jewish-only enclaves protected by Jewish soldiers, and the hell with you Arabs. Get too close, and we’ll shoot you.
When it came time for me to leave at the end of the day and go back to Jerusalem I had a choice between the main checkpoint, used by Palestinians, which I was warned might be time-consuming and irksome, and another one farther away, used by everyone else, and I nobly opted for the main one. Whatever inconvenience Palestinians put up with to enter Jerusalem (which used to be half theirs), I would put up with too, to see what it’s like.
But I couldn’t do it. To make ourselves available for search and questioning, we had to herd ourselves into a long, narrow, barred cage, in the nighttime darkness of a concrete holding area more dispiriting than a prison. A couple dozen downcast Palestinian men were already ahead of us in this tunnel-shaped cage, and more were coming behind us, so in another minute or two we would be crammed in, unable to move. We were told the wait would be at least an hour and a half, and I just couldn’t take it. I frantically backed my way out, pulling my wife with me.
Through the good offices of a friend, arrangements were made with a taxi bearing a yellow Israeli license plate rather than a green Palestinian one, and that taxi drove us 20 minutes to the other crossing point, where the driver told us that settlers go through.
At the first crossing we had been coached that we would have to show our passports, we would be searched, and any bags would be examined, which is what we were crowded into that cage waiting for.
At the second crossing we got waved through without showing any identification and without even getting out of the taxi.
How come? I asked the driver. We were the same people, carrying the same documents, coming from the same West Bank as before.
“They thought you were Jewish,” he said.