The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A political crisis exposes the fictions of the West Bank settlement enterprise

An Israeli flag is painted on a wall surrounding the West Bank Jewish settlement of Migdalim, near the Palestinian town of Nablus, on June 7. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

“But I live in Israel!” insisted the settler.

The occasion was a panel discussion on the future of the West Bank. I’d just pointed out that settlements lie outside Israel. My co-panelist was incredulous. She offered proof that she resided in sovereign Israeli territory: Letters from abroad addressed to her settlement, followed by the country name Israel, were delivered to her home.

Regardless of the post office’s ability to find her, the West Bank is indeed outside Israel’s borders. But I’ve met many settlers who are sure they live inside Israel, and many more for whom the distinction is immaterial. One reason is that the boundary between sovereign Israel and occupied territory doesn’t appear on official maps.

More than that, though, the distinction has very little effect on settlers’ lives. Unlike other Israelis who move out of the country, settlers are covered by Israel’s national health program. They collect the equivalent of their salaries from the National Insurance Institute during 15 weeks of paid maternity (or paternity) leave. They’re subject to the military draft.

For Palestinian residents of the West Bank, living in occupied territory is the overwhelming fact of life. Settlers live in “As-If Land:” The government treats them as if they were residents of Israel.

Now, due to a strange political twist, the legal basis for the as if status is due to expire. The house-of-cards coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett may yet manage to renew it. In the meantime, the crisis exposes the fictions on which the settlement enterprise is built.

The founding document of As-If Land was an emergency order issued by then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan on July 4, 1967. Three weeks earlier, Israeli had conquered the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and Sinai. No settlements yet existed, or even a decision to establish them. But Israelis were eagerly taking day trips to the lands beyond the old boundaries. Dayan’s order said that if one of them allegedly committed a crime, Israeli police could arrest him, and an Israeli court try him, as if the crime had taken place in Israel.

This was intended as a quick fix. In Israeli law, emergency orders are intended for situations too pressing to wait for legislation. They expire within months, unless parliament votes to extend them.

In January 1968, the Knesset extended the order for one year. By then, a few settlements had been established. But the government was deadlocked on the future of the occupied territories. So the quick fix stayed in place.

Then parliament went right on quietly extending the order, for longer periods — and adding to it. When Israel enacted national health insurance, a new line in the emergency order insured settlers. Another amendment lists laws that would otherwise apply only to Israeli residents — and says that they also apply to Israelis in the West Bank, as if they lived inside Israel. The list of laws has grown over the years.

This underlies the colonial reality in the West Bank: As I’ve written before, settlers enjoy the rights of those living in metropolitan Israel. Other residents do not.

The emergency order, last extended in 2017, is set to expire on June 30. This week, Bennett’s government asked the Knesset to renew it for five more years. But the ruling coalition stretches across the political spectrum and includes a party representing Arab citizens of Israel. It is held together only by shared determination to keep opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu from returning to power. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc recently declared it will vote against every government bill, as a means of bringing down Bennett.

So the extension was defeated. Two Arab members of the coalition cast nay votes, refusing to legitimize the occupation. Others absented themselves. Netanyahu’s loyalists — avid supporters of settlement — all voted against the measure.

This could foreshadow the fall of Bennett’s government. It could also be a skirmish before the extension comes up for a new vote and passes.

For now, though, the crisis has put the dual legal system in the West Bank in headlines. It shines a light on two half-truths, each a form of political fraud. On one hand, the emergency order is formally a temporary improvisation. It has allowed successive governments to avoid de jure annexation of the West Bank, with the diplomatic firestorm that would ensue and the vastly increased pressure to give full citizenship to Palestinian residents. But it has lasted 55 years.

Yet it turns out that the legal structure, as vital to settlement as the physical houses, is a fortress built of matchsticks. It can be knocked down with ease by a chance realignment in parliament. Advocates of a one-state solution who cite the supposed permanence of settlements in their argument should pay attention: The settlement enterprise is not as immovable as it looks.

And settlers themselves, looking at the headlines, should realize that they have fallen for a real estate scam. They are not, in fact, living in Israel.