Dan Ephron is the author of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.”
For people accustomed to thinking of Israeli settlements as small, bare-bones communities on isolated hilltops, Ariel comes as a surprise. The city, situated about 13 miles deep in the West Bank, has a population of 19,000, a new two-story shopping mall and a concert hall that seats 540. I visited Ariel a few times this spring as Israel prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the military campaign that brought the West Bank under Israeli control. Traveling to other settlements in the area often involves crossing through Ariel, slowing down for a security check at one electronic gate and exiting at another. Though I know Israel well — I covered it as a foreign correspondent for years — every pass revealed to me some new way that life had become oddly normalized in the settlement. On one of those drives, I stopped to watch a professional soccer match between a home team and a rival from a city inside Israel. On another day, a concert pianist was giving a recital of Chopin and Beethoven pieces in the auditorium.
The eastern part of the city houses Ariel University, one of Israel’s fastest-growing academic institutions. Its sprawling campus includes an engineering department and a center for cyber-technology. A medical school will open in 2019 with a state-of-the-art hospital. Just about everywhere on campus, I could hear bulldozing and jackhammering. Like many of the settlements themselves, the university has migrated over the years from the political margins to the Israeli mainstream. It started out as a small college, mainly for settlers. Then a sympathetic government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upgraded its status a few years ago, against the recommendation of the country’s main academic bodies, making it a fully accredited university. It now has 15,000 full-time students, including many who commute from inside Israel on a six-lane highway. “I came because I got accepted to the psychology program here and not at other universities,” a 27-year-old student, Nehemya Rosenfeld, told me. “It’s just like any other campus.”
The university, the shopping mall, the thousands of homes in Ariel — all of this makes the settlement a towering impediment to a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Ariel is probably too large and well entrenched for any Israeli government to contemplate dismantling. In a phrase you hear often in Israel, Ariel is “in the consensus,” (“ba-kontzentzus,” Israelis say). But it’s also too deep inside the West Bank to leave in place without truncating the state Palestinians hope to build. If settlements are obstacles to peace, as the United States has long defined them, Ariel is the mother of all obstacles.
Israelis have been debating for decades what to do with the West Bank — whether to give it up in a deal with the Palestinians or keep it under Israeli control. For just as long, Israel has been building or expanding settlements: More than 200, including what Israelis call “outposts,” are now scattered across the territory. Most are smaller and less established than Ariel. Some house just a few families. But their combined mass, physical and political, has become so dense in the past 50 years that a question about their impact looms large on this anniversary of the war: Is a broad Israeli withdrawal even conceivable anymore?
Under full Palestinian control (Area A)
Administered by Palestinian Authority but Israeli security presence (Area B)
Under full Israeli control (Area C)
THE WASHINGTON POST
Under full Palestinian control (Area A)
Administered by Palestinian Authority but Israeli security presence (Area B)
Under full Israeli control (Area C)
THE WASHINGTON POST
The numbers tell part of the story. An estimated 620,000 Israelis live beyond the Green Line (including in East Jerusalem), the colloquial term for the pre-1967 border. The figure represents some 7.3 percent of Israel’s citizens. At least a quarter of them live far from that line, too far to be accommodated in a future peace deal through land swaps or border adjustments. While the settlers enjoy protection from the Israeli army and subsidies from the government, Israel keeps some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank under prohibitive military rule, with restrictions imposed on nearly every aspect of their lives, from how they travel to how they farm to what cellphone networks they can use.
But the figures alone fail to capture an important intangible about settlements — and their confounding anomaly. Most of the world regards them as illegal. Israel itself has never formally extended its sovereignty to the West Bank (except around Jerusalem), meaning that the status of the settlements, even by Israel’s legal standards, is murky. Yet some of these cities and towns have become so deeply woven into the fabric of Israeli life that many Israelis no longer think of them as settlements at all.
In one study, conducted last year by the Israeli political scientist Oded Haklai, about 60 percent of Israelis said they thought Ariel, Kiryat Arba and Maaleh Adumim, three of the most prominent settlements, were located inside Israel. “I’m in my mid-40s, and people my age, even relatively well-educated people, don’t really know whether Ariel is within Israel or not,” said Haklai, who teaches at Queens University in Canada. In another study, Israeli college students were asked to draw the Green Line on a map of Israel and the West Bank. Less than one-third could do it — an extraordinary result given the significance of the line. The international community regards it as the place where Israel ends and the Palestinian territory begins. But most Israelis hardly see it anymore.
In some ways, these findings are unsurprising. The Green Line no longer appears on schoolbook maps or newspaper weather charts — it hasn’t for years. In official documents, Israel stopped referring to the territory as the West Bank soon after the war, preferring the biblical term Judea and Samaria. The trend caught on, first on the nightly news and eventually in everyday discourse. Today, even Israelis with no particular political bent refer to the area as “Judea and Samaria” or simply “the territories,” but rarely “the West Bank.”
That linguistic drift, that trend toward erasing the Green Line and normalizing the settlements, has potentially profound implications for both Israelis and Palestinians. Without a substantial evacuation of settlers (one at least 20 times broader than the Gaza evacuation in 2005), it’s nearly impossible for Palestinians to have a viable, contiguous state. And without a Palestinian state, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine peace between Palestinians and Israelis. The entire peacemaking endeavor between the two sides, in which every American president since Jimmy Carter has invested himself, and which President Trump doubled down on during his recent trip to Jerusalem, is predicated on the idea of land for peace. But if Israelis view settlements such as Ariel as fixtures in their national landscape — that is, as parts of their country — the peace process is a dead letter.
For about two weeks this spring, I traveled throughout the settlements to test a simple thesis about Israel: that its very short war with the Arabs in 1967 gave way to a much longer war among Israelis themselves over one of the territories they captured — and that 50 years later, the expansionists could convincingly claim victory. Some days during my trip, I just drove from settlement to settlement, noting the construction (which has surged since Trump’s election) and taking in the geography, before making my way back to Tel Aviv. Other days I lingered, held long conversations with residents and then spent the night, in rooms offered on Airbnb.
Parts of the settlement enterprise remain rugged and off the grid. In Bat Ayin, near Bethlehem, I spent a night in an old transit bus that belonged to Esty and Bnaya, a married couple in their 20s, who’d grown up in the settlements. They bought the bus from a friend, ripped out the seats and lined the walls with wood paneling. The composting toilet emptied into a bucket under the floor. “Do whatever you need to do in there and cover it with these wood chips,” Bnaya explained. When I remarked about the spartan lifestyle, Bnaya offered to take me to the farm of his brother, Yair. A short drive from the settlement, we veered onto a dirt road that dead-ended into a wooded forest. Yair appeared from a large tent, where he lives with his wife and four children, raising goats and chickens with just one other family. That pioneering ethos has been part of the mythology of the settler movement going back to its earliest days.
But the truth is that most settlers now live in middle-class communities that would feel familiar to suburbanites anywhere in America, with single-family homes, strip malls and cul de sacs. One of the homes I stayed in, a two-story structure with a chiseled facade in the settlement Ofra, had a small swimming pool in the yard. In Dolev, I spent the night in a wood cabin with a loft and a hot tub. The Airbnb entry for the cabin touted a nearby horse ranch and bicycle rentals.
That the settlers had a tourism industry at all struck me as one more sign of creeping normalization. Their listings on Airbnb did as well. Most settlers who offer their homes on the site don’t mention that their communities exist outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders (“15 minutes drive from Jerusalem,” as one put it). Palestinians have pointed out that the practice allows Israelis to deceive their guests and portray a false political reality. But Airbnb has so far not compelled settlers to clarify the geography in their posts. Since there’s usually no road sign telling people they’re crossing from Israel into the West Bank, some guests have presumably stayed in settlements without thinking of them as anything other than ordinary Israeli towns.
Which makes these travelers a lot like the Israelis who host them.
T he settlement Kiryat Arba winds along several hills in the southern West Bank, east of the Palestinian city Hebron. Its 7,000 residents live in low-slung apartment buildings or houses that look just cookie-cutter enough to confuse a visitor trying to find his way. I drove there one evening to see a play put on by Habima, Israel’s national theater company. Kiryat Arba was founded soon after the war, making it one of the oldest settlements in the West Bank. Its residents have been both victims and perpetrators of some of the most dreadful nationalist violence in the territory over the decades, including the 1994 massacre in Hebron of 29 Palestinian worshipers by settler Baruch Goldstein.
More recently, tensions in the town flared over something else: whether Habima would perform. Habima’s actors had appeared at venues around the country but not in the settlements. In the contracting circle of the Israeli left, which encompasses many artists and theater people, some argued that putting on shows for settlers would amount to tacit support for the settlement enterprise.
But last year, Netanyahu’s government threatened to slash funding for theater companies that refused to perform for Israelis in the West Bank. Since Habima relies on government money for its budget, it quickly relented. The show I was there to see, a comedy-drama written by two Israeli playwrights, was only Habima’s second performance ever in the settlement. Residents packed the 400-seat auditorium.
The play centered on a wayward son who returns home to reconcile with his dying father — it had no real political message. But the event itself was rife with politics. Ayelet Yifrach, who runs the cultural center, declared at the opening: “Nothing will prevent Habima from performing here in Kiryat Arba-Hebron, the city of our forefathers and foremothers.” (Kiryat Arba and the settler community of Hebron are governed by one local council.) Malachi Levinger, the head of the local council, followed her to the stage and said that settlers had “nothing to apologize for.” After the curtain call, the lead actor, Yaakov Cohen, stepped forward to address the controversy. “Ideology or no ideology, left or right, I came to make people happy,” he said.
The small victory for the settlers underscored something broader about their leaders. Over 50 years of political struggle, they’ve become remarkably adept at bending the will of Israeli institutions — including a cultural symbol of left-wing Tel Aviv — to meet their needs.
In part, it’s because they’ve had the backing of most Israeli governments over the decades. A government headed by the left-leaning Labor Party built the first settlements in the years after the war, mostly in the strategic Jordan Valley, in a bid to draw more defensible borders for Israel. When power shifted to the right-wing Likud party, starting in 1977, Israeli governments approved construction of settlements throughout the West Bank, asserting not just a need for security but a religious and nationalist right to the territory. In the first 10 years of Israel’s rule in the West Bank, the settler population went from zero to 4,400, not including East Jerusalem. In the next 10, under mostly Likud-led governments, it soared to 60,300. As the numbers swelled, the power and influence of the settler leadership grew.
That influence helped ensure that successive governments provided financial subsidies to the settlements, making housing cheaper and classrooms smaller. Those subsidies, in turn, made the settlements attractive to many thousands from mainstream Israeli society — and later from the ultra-Orthodox community. In most years since the late 1970s, the number of settlers has grown at least twice as fast as Israel’s general population. Each new resident, whether motivated by ideology or economics, became a stakeholder in the idea of a Greater Israel.
But even when governments have wavered in their support — as when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin froze most settlement growth while he negotiated for peace with the Palestinians — settler leaders have been effective at projecting their message to a cross section of Israelis. Many centrists, for example, have come to embrace the idea that the settlements bolster Israel’s security, a key talking point of the settlers (a Pew poll from 2015 put the share of centrists who agreed at 32 percent). Some even admire the settlers — for their can-do spirit and their ability to withstand attacks by Palestinian militants. The phenomenon is hard to quantify. But it shows up in focus groups, according to Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert who has advised the Labor Party on several national campaigns. “I have been struck to find some mainstream Israelis . . . looking up to them as pioneers, putting themselves on the line for things they believe in.”
A few days after seeing the play in Kiryat Arba, I took a drive with Boaz Haetzni of the tour group Samaria, Nice to Meet You. Run by settler municipalities and funded by taxpayers, the company takes Israelis on explanatory trips to the settlements, to generate support and to make the case that even a minor withdrawal would be calamitous. The trips are relatively new — the program has been around for about five years — but the idea behind them is not. The settlers have an expression in Hebrew: “lehitnachel ba-levavot.” It means roughly that they aim to settle not just in the land of Israel but in the hearts of their fellow Israelis.
The group targets people who aren’t natural allies of the settlers: students and union members, among others. “We don’t want to stay in our own corner,” Haetzni told me. A separate section that he runs focuses on Israeli VIPs, including lawmakers and top journalists. Haetzni estimates that some 200,000 Israelis have taken the tour (the number is impossible to verify). At least two other companies offer similar trips.
Over the course of a day, Haetzni took me to the main stops on the tour: hilltop lookouts that show how vulnerable Israel would be without the West Bank; biblical sites that underscore the Jewish connection to the territory; settler industries that employ Palestinians alongside Jews. Along the way, he argued that many Palestinians are not actually native to the territory and that their official population figure of nearly 3 million is inflated. Neither claim is supported by scholarly work; the official Palestinian population numbers are confirmed even by Israeli demographers.
If the polemics don’t work on everyone, the settlers have also diversified their advocacy, marketing the West Bank (or “Yesha,” an acronym meaning Judea, Samaria and Gaza) as a family-fun place. Wineries and cheese-tastings are often stops on the outreach tours. Commercial companies offer paintball events and jeep excursions. On one of my drives, I pulled into an adventure park that boasted the longest zip line in Israel, stretching more than 400 yards across a canyon. On another day, I drove past an amateur race car track.
Whether the attractions draw large numbers of Israelis from inside the Green Line is unclear. When violence flares in the West Bank, Israelis tend to stay away. But the fact that tourist sites exist at all says something about how far the settlers have come. Karni Eldad, who lives in the settlement Tekoa and wrote a 289-page guidebook on “the good life in Judea and Samaria,” told me she regarded the leisure-and-recreation culture as more evidence that the settlements are permanent: “Someone who believes he’s going to be evacuated doesn’t start building a hotel.” She said it marked the transition of the settlement movement from its fiery adolescence to stodgy, self-assured middle age.
If she’s right, the settlers are doing well in midlife. On this 50th anniversary of the war, two of them are Supreme Court justices, and three serve in Netanyahu’s 22-member cabinet. The speaker of Israel’s parliament is a settler, and so is one of the recipients this year of Israel’s highest honor, the Israel Prize, an activist who devotes himself to settling Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. To the world, Israel remains an occupier in the West Bank. But Netanyahu’s government might bring the country closer to annexing the territory this year. A bill put forward by members of his coalition calls for extending Israeli sovereignty to one of the largest settlements, Maaleh Adumim.
In the military and the media, settlers and their supporters have captured key positions. In politics, the parties that represent the settlers, Likud and its satellites to the right, have won the past three elections and six of the past eight. According to recent polls, the Labor Party’s prospects of winning an election are next to none. When a pollster asked Israelis recently about annexing all of the West Bank, 44 percent favored the idea (compared with 38 percent who opposed it ).
“Maybe ideology takes you a certain distance, but then the next generation comes along and wants to make life normal,” Eldad told me.
She titled her book simply, “Yesha Is Fun.”
All that success for the settlers has meant mostly hardship for the Palestinians. To build the settlements and the roads leading to them, Israel has appropriated many thousands of acres in the West Bank, declaring up to a quarter of the territory “state land” (meaning Israel can use it in any way it chooses). To ensure the safety of the settlers, it has restricted Palestinian mobility in large parts of the territory. While driving through the West Bank, I spotted only a few checkpoints — those military stop-and-search operations that snarl traffic for Palestinians and make commuting or commerce a nightmare. They come and go according to the security situation. But I saw plenty of places where the army had blocked a certain entrance to a Palestinian town in order to channel traffic away from the roads Israelis tend to use.
Most of the main roads are accessible to Palestinians, but the settlements themselves, with their swimming pools and other amenities, are off limits. The ban is spelled out in a military order from 1997 that does not single out Palestinians, per se — but it leaves no room for doubt. It starts by declaring the territory of each settlement a “closed military zone.” The order then carves out exceptions to the ban: for Israeli citizens, for visitors to Israel with valid visas and for individuals who “qualify for Israeli citizenship under the law of return” — essentially people who can show Jewish ancestry. The upshot is a jarring kind of segregation that allows tourists from anywhere in the world to visit a settlement freely while barring Palestinians who might live one town over from entering its gates.
Israel explains the prohibition as a security measure. Certainly, the settlers need protection: Palestinian militants have killed hundreds of them since 1967, in ambushes on the roads and attacks in the settlements themselves. On one of the days I was touring the settlements, a Palestinian rammed his car into a bus stop outside Ofra, killing an Israeli soldier. On almost every drive, I spotted makeshift memorials on the sides of the roads for the victims of Palestinian attacks.
But the ban is so broad that it allows many settlers to inhabit an alternate reality in which the millions of Palestinians who surround them exist in a kind of blurred backdrop, if they exist at all. Residents of Maaleh Adumim who work in Israel can travel back and forth each day through a tunnel that bypasses the Palestinian population. The highway from Ariel to Israel, though it runs past at least a half-dozen Palestinian towns, hardly acknowledges them: The road signs point almost exclusively to settlements.
When I shared these observations with settlers, some of them countered that the segregation goes both ways. Since the second Palestinian uprising, from 2000 to 2005, Israelis have been barred from entering the main Palestinian cities and some towns. Large red signs at the approach to each of them exhort Israelis to turn back for their own safety: “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law,” they say. The area inaccessible to Israelis comprises about 19 percent of the West Bank, according to the rights group Yesh Din.
But the restriction is modest compared with the controls imposed on Palestinians. And it’s leveled by Israel itself as the occupying power in the West Bank, as part of a broader governing structure that accords many more rights to Israelis than to Palestinians. That structure includes separate legal systems — Israeli law for settlers and much harsher military law for Palestinians — and separate courts that mete out wildly unequal penalties. An Israeli settler arrested for protesting in the West Bank without a permit would be tried in a civilian court and subject to no more than a year in prison. A Palestinian arrested for the same crime would face trial in a military court, where nearly all cases end in conviction, and a sentence of up to 10 years.
Over the years, that governing system has also evolved to include an informal understanding within the Israeli bureaucracy that the territory is effectively part of Israel but its residents — the vast majority of them — are not. On Israel’s Independence Day in May, the government’s Central Bureau of Statistics published a report with updated population figures, as it does every year. A map in the report depicted the West Bank as just one more region of Israel, labeling it “Judea and Samaria District.” The population figure, 8.68 million, included settlers who live in the West Bank. But it left out their neighbors, the Palestinians.
What Palestinians are allowed to do in the settlements is work, assuming they can pass a rigorous security screening and a get a permit. But the workers — mostly in construction and service jobs — are not allowed to drive in, and they can’t spend the night. During my two weeks in the West Bank, I learned that the best way to estimate the number of Palestinians working in a given settlement at any moment is by counting the cars parked just outside the gate. This underscored one of the ironies of the settlements, which is that Palestinian hands built most of them: their houses and synagogues, their community centers and shopping malls.
The work permits are attractive. A Palestinian day laborer might earn twice the money in a settlement just across the road than he would in his own town. But the daily security ordeal, the stigma of working in the settlements and the anxiety over one day losing the coveted permit can take a toll.
One morning during my time in the West Bank, I drove to Nilin, a Palestinian town where workers park their cars on their way to jobs either in nearby settlements or in Israel itself. From the unpaved parking lot, it’s a short walk to one end of an Israeli military station where, in a large hall, soldiers screen the Palestinians with body scanners and fingerprint readers. The workers exit at the other end, where they’re picked up by Israeli employers. By 4:30 a.m., a long line had formed outside the station, snaking into the parking lot; for some workers, the wait can take hours. Though it was still dark, Palestinian vendors had set up a few rickety stalls to sell goods to the workers: cigarettes, sodas, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna. One vendor was frying falafel on a gas burner.
For much of the morning, I spoke to Palestinians in line through a translator. Among those who worked in Israel, several said they were grateful for their jobs and described good relations with their employers. Some feared being dropped by their bosses and losing their permits. One man cited a kind of black market for the permits, where Palestinians pay middlemen up to a third of their salary for the right to work in Israel.
Among the Palestinians who worked in settlements, the picture was darker. The wages were often lower than in Israel (though still better than in Palestinian areas), and the relations were sometimes tense. Since the Palestinian Authority has urged people to boycott the settlements, some Palestinians felt they needed to hide where they worked. “They’re close, so it’s convenient, but I’m not happy about it,” a man who gave his name as Mohammed told me. “These settlements are on our lands, but they’re probably lost to us.”
In theory, of course, nothing is irreversible, including the settlement enterprise. Some Israelis make the case, in fact, that it is less robust than it seems. For one thing, though Israeli governments have been encouraging their citizens to move to the West Bank for most of the past 50 years, less than 10 percent of the country’s Jewish population now lives over the Green Line. Many Israelis have never visited a settlement. And while Israeli communities dot virtually the entire map of the West Bank, Palestinians still outnumber Jews by a huge majority — in the West Bank as a whole and in each part of the territory. For all the billions Israel has spent on entrenching itself in the West Bank, so the argument goes, a broad pullback remains feasible.
On an overcast day, I drove from the West Bank to Jaffa, inside Israel, just south of Tel Aviv, to meet Shaul Arieli, one of the argument’s most energetic proponents. Arieli is a retired colonel who spent part of his service as a brigade commander in the Gaza Strip. During the 1990s, he played a role in negotiating and implementing the Oslo peace deals between Israelis and Palestinians. Arieli now devotes himself to preserving the idea in the public consciousness that Israel can extricate itself from the occupation and allow Palestinians to have their state. It’s a position that puts him at odds not just with the settlers but with some left-wing Israelis who have concluded that the two-state solution is no longer viable.
For years, Arieli has been creating richly detailed maps of the settlements, with layers of demographic and financial data. In Israel and abroad, he gives 150 lectures a year, scrolling through more than 70 slides in a PowerPoint presentation. Arieli’s articles appear regularly in Haaretz, the country’s one left-wing newspaper, printed in both Hebrew and English. A week before I arrived in Israel, he’d published an op-ed headlined, “Israel’s Settlement Movement Isn’t Growing the Way You Thought It Was.”
The gist of his argument is that most large Israeli settlements are situated close enough to the Green Line to be incorporated into Israel under any agreement with the Palestinians. In exchange for the border adjustments, Israel would give the Palestinians some of its own territory. One of Arieli’s slides shows blue dots depicting settlements scattered across the West Bank. But when he filters out the settlements that have less than 1,000 residents, half the dots disappear. When he adjusts the filter to exclude those with less than 5,000 residents, most of the dots that remain hug the Green Line, just inside the West Bank. (One of the exceptions is Ariel.)
From the data, Arieli concludes that Israel would need to evacuate not 620,000 settlers to make room for a Palestinian state, but more like 150,000. “It’s doable,” he says. He bases his conclusion on the numbers but also on a personal connection he has to the settlers. Arieli’s brother is one of them, a farmer in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. If the government compensated his brother for the value of his home and farm, he would move back to Israel willingly, Arieli says.
Yet for all his confidence, Arieli concedes that feasibility is only one of the required conditions for an Israeli withdrawal. Israelis must first elect a government committed to giving up the West Bank. Palestinians must end their infighting and show a willingness to make deep compromises (including the significant border adjustments Arieli envisions). People on both sides who are disillusioned after decades of sustained violence and failed peace talks — all based on the principles Arieli now champions — must believe that a solution is workable. On the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the possibility that even one of those conditions could be met seems deeply unlikely.
And still, Israel would face the daunting task of clearing at least 150,000 settlers from their homes. Among those who moved to the West Bank for economic reasons, many might be amenable to relocating if compensated financially. But since these nonideological settlers live mainly in communities close to the Green Line, most would not face evacuation. Instead, Israel would be uprooting settlements deep in the West Bank, where many thousands of hard-liners are likely to resist.
Israel has carried out two large-scale evacuations of civilians since 1967. It pulled 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and withdrew a similar number of its citizens from Sinai as part of the 1979 peace accord with Egypt. Both events — tiny compared with the scope of a possible West Bank evacuation — triggered broad resistance and pockets of violence. If the Gaza withdrawal had produced peace and tranquility, it might have softened Israelis on the idea of a West Bank pullout. But in retrospect, most Israelis regard it as a cautionary tale, thanks to a steady pace of rocket attacks since then by Hamas, which controls Gaza.
All this isn’t to say that settlements are the only impediment to a peace deal. Palestinians have put up their own obstacles over the years. But when Israelis come to view their settlements as permanent, it does more than stand in the way of an agreement. It forecloses on the idea of peace altogether.
On one of my last days in the West Bank , I drove up to the site of Amona, a settlement built in 1995 on a hill high above Ofra. Amona marks one of those rare spots in the West Bank where the settler community suffered a political setback. In 2008, Palestinians who own the land on which the settlement was built petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to get it back, and they eventually won. According to Israel’s rules governing construction in the occupied territories (and international law regarding territory acquired in a war), Israeli settlements cannot be established on land privately owned by Palestinians. After losing the case, the settlers spent two years lobbying the government to somehow undo the court decision but failed. Israeli troops dismantled Amona earlier this year and evicted some 40 Israeli families from the hill.
Yet the story of Amona is really about settler power and tenacity, not weakness. Amona residents managed to fight the lawsuit in court for six years, though they had no valid documents contesting the Palestinian ownership (they produced a contract of sale for the land at one point, but the court ruled it a forgery). In the months leading up to the evacuation, they wrung an astonishing list of concessions from Netanyahu’s government in exchange for their willingness to leave quietly, without resisting the soldiers who would come to evict them.
The list included the passage of a law preventing Palestinian landowners from making claims against the many other settlements built partially or entirely on private Palestinian property. In other words, Israel responded to the ruling of its own high court by eliminating the decades-old legal principle that judges cited in ordering the evacuation of Amona in the first place.
It also included a pledge by the government to build a new settlement for the evicted residents — a much bigger one. Netanyahu announced the plan while I was reporting in Israel. “I promised at the outset that we would build a new community . . . and we will uphold it today,” he said. A spot the government has tentatively identified for construction would put the settlement deep in the West Bank, deeper than Ariel.
Together, the new settlement and the new law (if it passes the scrutiny of the High Court of Justice — rights groups have asked judges to strike it down) will deepen Israel’s hold over the West Bank. They will also reinforce the idea that the territory Israel captured 50 years ago is no different from Israel itself. “The right has been in power for so long that it has been able to create a certain reality,” says Ehud Eiran, an Israeli political scientist at Haifa University. “Sometimes I have to explain to my kids that these settlements are not part of Israel.”
As for the land where Amona existed, it remains off-limits to its Palestinian owners. After almost a decade of legal proceedings and a dramatic evacuation (some settlers resisted despite the promise given by residents), the Israeli army declared the hill a “closed military zone.” It posted three soldiers at the site to enforce the order. One of the Palestinian owners, Maryam Hassan Abd al-Karim, told me at her home in Silwad, across the road from Amona, that she handed out candies to neighbors when the settlers left. But she may never get access to her land.
A sign left behind at the entrance to the old settlement seemed to sum it up: Under the word “Amona” in Hebrew, someone had spray-painted: “We will be back, I swear.”
Dan Ephron is the author of “Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel.”
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