Why There Are Still Settlements In The West Bank

When outsiders try to come to terms with the Israel-Palestine-conflict they immediately face a major challenge: every point made in favour of one party is made at the expense of the other. There is no middle-ground. We seem forced to choose, to acknowledge the plight of one people at the expense of the other. Acknowledgement of one plight comes with simultaneously belittleing or ignoring the plight of the other. With this impasse there cannot be impartial outsiders. A simple way of looking already implies a decision on whose suffering is worthwile whereas the other’s is to be blanked out.

But not only is this true of outsiders watching the conflict. It’s is likewise true of the parties involved. And not only is this just a defining aspect of the whole conflict, it is at the same time utterly inhuman. There cannot be better or lesser victims. Every distress is equal. The damaging impacts of the Middle East conflict are not just limited to the parties involved but affect everyone who is watching. Not only the humanity of two people is at stake, but of all who are watching. It is this moral impasse that makes the conflict so utterly brutal and hopeless. The tragedies of this conflict reach far wider and run much deeper than the struggle between two people over land, security, viability, and dignity. We’ll have to find a solution to this impasse if we want to open the discussions.

There is the impression that the current impasse between Jews and Palestinians is mostly due to actions of the government of Prime Mininster Benjamin Netanyahu. He leads a coalition of religious orthodox parties, settlers, and his conservative Likud. Enough can be said in support of this claim: the advancement of the annexation of Palestinian land by enlargement of settlements; the destruction of Palestininan farms; the populating of East Jerusalem; the refusal of every meaningful peace negotiation with the Palestinian Authority; and the playing for time in order to make the developments in the West Bank irreversible.

Other think that the fault is with the Palestinians. The decline of the offers Ehut Barak had made to Yassir Arafat in Camp David, July 2000; the refusal of Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist; the breakdown of confidence on the Jewish side that land for peace can be a viable option after Israel had pulled out of Gaza; the so-called terrorism of Hamas against Israel and the Jewish people; the threat from Iran and its so-called proxies Hezbollah or Hamas.

All this (and much more) is part of the tit for tat that continues between the Jewish people and the Palestinians not only since 1967 but since the founding of Israel as a sovereign state on May 14th, 1948, the rejoice for the Jewish people and the Nakba for the Palestinians. This tit for tat follows the rules outlined above: the advantage for one people means the defeat for the other, the acknowledgement of one side’s plight means the inhuman denial of the other. In fact, both sides insist on their victimhood, thereby sugarcoating their part of being culprits and scapegoating the other side. Being a victim is paramount not only for justifying one’s own aggression as an act of self-defense; its being self-defense is necessary in order to justify one’s actions as morally permissible (especially towards oneself). If you are the victim, then the other party has to be the culprit. So their demands cannot be legitimate or reasonable, in fact, they are just a pretense for aggression. [1]

The wheel goes round and round. And as a majority of Jews in Israel seems to have lost confidence in the land-for-peace-option, a majority of Palestinians seems to have lost confidence in the feasability of any peace-negotiation at all. Right now it seems that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has overplayed its cards and the Palestinians have gotten the upper hand: Israel faces worldwide isolation, its PR-war seems lost (with the exception of the US) [2], and due to the break-down of a “peace-process” the Palestinians are on the brink of declaring statehood in September 2011. [3] But even if the Palestinians succeed in declaring a sovereign state with the help of the General Assembly of the United Nations, this will not end the conflict. In fact, as soon as the sovereignty of Palestine is declared, Israel will simply overtly accept the status of an occupying power it effectively has since 1967. The reason is simple: Israel cannot abandon Jerusalem, nor the settlements, nor the concept of a Greater Israel. Therefore there will not be two states “side by side”.

The impression that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has effectively ruined Israel’s standing in the world, occupying the West Bank with zeal and determination to make it a permanent part of an Israeli state misses the fact that Netanyahu’s governement is only an extreme and resolute version of the aspiration to include the West Bank and Jerusalem into Israel. Other governments, left-leaning and right-leaning, didn’t much deviate either from this goal. And it may be easier to see an implicit conflict on the Jewish side at work when we look back into the 1990s and 2000s. 


Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria Area) are seen internationally as the most obstinate problems for a durable and sustainable peace in the Middle East. This is so because the dispute about both, Jerusalem and the settlements, is seen as the heart of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. But this conflict is only on the surface a conflict about territory or sovereignty, exclusive adminstration or exclusive land use. At the botttom lie different concepts of the meaning of the land. Judea and Samaria are, in the eyes of most Jews, part of a “sacral topography” that can neither be abandoned nor shared. But for the Palestinians this is the only place where they can be a people and a nation. So the West Bank is a territory endowed not only with different but with contradictory meanings. Its religious meaning to the Jewish people runs counter to the political and psychological meaning to the Palestinians. They seem mutual exclusive.

Because of this there will be no solution in the near or further future. In fact, any peace treaty between Jews and Palestinians will have to come up without a prior solution of these topics. Or to be more precise: every peace treaty between both people, desirable and necessary as it is, will be one without involving a solution to the questions of settlements and the status of Jerusalem. This doesn’t mean that it is pointless to strive for a peace deal. On the contrary. But this peace treaty will not and cannot deliver what until very recently the majorities of both people had wanted it to deliver: an answer to the questions of the status of Jerusalem, the settlements, and the occupied territories. Both people will have to be brave to accept that the function of a peace treaty will be different from that of being a solution to the questions of status.

The Jewish people are defined by its history. God’s promise of this homeland and 2.000 years of displacement, diaspora, persection, progroms, genocide form the core of much of Jewishness and the Jewish people. Eretz Israel, the land between River Euphrat and the Red Sea, was promised by God to the Jewish people. Now, if you are a religious person than you simply cannot treat this promise merely as a (central) part of a “belief-system”, a set of beliefs that may be shared or not, a set of beliefs whose content may be negotiable or not. This “belief” cannot be disputed, just as a secular person cannot disput gravity to be part of the world. Disputing the existence of gravity simply makes no sense. Is the sky blue? Is the grass green? Can you give up the “belief” in those “facts”? Likewise a religious person – especially if it is a very devout religious person like an orthodox Jew – simply cannot give up the “belief” that God has promised Eretz Israel as the undivided homeland for all Jewish people. He cannot forsake the “knowledge” (!) that this Promised Land is Holy Land, is not just the sign of but simply in all reality the covenant between God and His people. Giving up this land means abandoning the covenant, thereby not only destroying the Jewish people, but destroying land and world.

Today’s settlement-movement is very different from the kibbutz-movement of the early 20th century. The kibbutz-movement was at times religious, at times left leaning and secular. Today’s settlement movement comprises mainly devout religious Orthodox and people from the rightwing, conservative side. Both aim at an Eretz Israel without Palestinians even if for different reasons. Whereas the orthodox Jews yearn for the redemption of the land, the secular Right seeks the realization of the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, guaranteed by a strong military presence. Both factions represent different concepts and ways of guaranteeing the continuity of Jewishness, but are close enough to cooperate.

As the secular left-leaning faction (intereted in peace negotiations and more open to the concept of land-for-peace) lost influence in Jewish politics and society, the settlement-movement (comprising both religious and secular elements) and its political arms grew stronger. Today the creation of outposts by religious settlers and the continued occupation of disputed land in the West Bank is met with open or covert sympathies by members of the armed forces, the police, and  in wide areas of rightwing politics. Even as the founding of new outpost is illegal under Israeli law (not to mention International law), sympathies for the settlers grant them a free hand and impunity. But even in the 1990s and 2000s, when the coalition of conservatives and orthodox wasn’t that strong, left-leaning politics and secular circles couldn’t prevent the building of outposts, the opposition to evictions through civil disobedience, and the creation of settlements in the disputed territories. Neither left-leaning nor right-leaning government could (or would) rein in the settlers.

The reasons are the different understandings of the meaning of the land by these factions and the lessons and obligations history has placed upon the Jewish people.

Every state has the legal and moral obligation to secure the well-being of its citizens at home and abroad, and this is true of the state of Israel as well. But due to the Shoa the rescue and well-being of every Jewish life became not only the duty of the state of Israel but of every Jew everywhere in the world. So even when there was a mood in Jewish society that declared religous settlers somewhat nutty, it was the experience of the Shoah that forced even the most ardent secular left-leaning person to defend every orthodox Jew or conservative settler, regardless of their actions. Even as both sides cannot come to share a common position, they have to embrace and save each others. And as the conflict between both factions over the meaning of the land and its availability for a land-for-peace-option couldn’t (and seemingly cannot) be solved, its solution had to be postponed. Settlements now cannot be torn down, they must be tolerated and the orthodox settlers who cannot do other than obey their scriptures and insist on the Promise to become true, must be protected by every Jew and the state of Israel as a whole. And how do you do this? You have to place the burden of this postponement on the backs of the Palestinian people. Their farms and land get annexed, settlements get enlarged and connect to East-Jerusalem, the Palestinian populace gets forced out of the Arab parts of the Holy City, etc.

This inner-Jewish conflict becomes somewhat invisible if one solely watches conservative politicians who are in a broad alliance with orthodox Jews and religious settlers. In the times of Netanyahu the political right openly agreed with the goals of the settlers, even if for different reasons. But the crucial point is that even if a governement would have liked to abandon settlements and rein in the religious settlers, it couldn’t have done so. The only difference between the 1990s / 2000s and today is that today’s government embraces wholeheartedly what former left-leaning governments couldn’t help but grudgingly had to embrace  the annexation of the West Bank on the backs of the Palestinians due to the settlement acitivity that is motivated, justified, and necessitated by God’s Promise to His people.


Israel and the Jewish people have postponed any solution of this inner-Jewish problem between the left-leaning seculars and the religious groups by placing the burden of the conflict on the Palestinian people. Securing the settlements and their enlargement is the only way these Jewish factions can have different ways of lives while simultaneously obeying the demands and obligations stemming from the history of diaspora, progroms, and the Shoah. But of course, the Palestinian people have all the right in the world to resist this. There is no justification why the Palestinians should pay for or provide a solution to an inner-Jewish problem that, in its core, is a problem in the Jewish cosmology. And the Jewish people have no other choice but placing the burden of this conflict on the shoulders of the Palestinian people. Exactly because people cannot choose what cosmolgy to believe in or to live by. The Shoah binds all Jewish people to stand together come what may. As long as religious motivated settlers cannot help but “retake” the Promised Land, the state of Israel will have to protect them. And the way of doing this is by force, because the Palestinian people neither comply nor go away.

Most critics of Israel think they can criticize her without taking history and cosmology into account. As they blank out the tragical history of the Jewish people they confine themselves to a present day description of conflict, culpability, and conflict-resolution. Most often they may be legally right. But morally they are on a shaky ground inasmuch as their taking side in favour of acknowledging the distress of the Palestinians comes at the expense of ignoring the plight of the Jewish people. But we cannot choose sides that way. We have to acknowledge the distress of every human being (here and elsewhere). There are no better or lesser victims. We have to face the tragedies of both peoples on a par. To do this we have to acknowledge that the conflicts of settlements and Jerusalem are not only at the centre of the tragedy, but they are insolvable.

No-one should expect the settlement-movement to disappear. The dynamics of conflict will persist. For that reason a solution of two-state “side by side” is not and will not be an option that resolves these problems. One can think about other models. But before doing so we have to breath deeply and to accept for once the extent, significance, and the large consequences of this conflict. Neither side, Israelis nor Palestinians, can give up their obligations to their people, their histories, their cultures, their heritages, their religions. There is no way out other than accepting that deep down in our hearts we are human beings. All suffering is equal. No life is worth more or less than another. From this a solution may one day come.


[1] Cf. my posts Villains And Victims – Part 1 and Part 2 .
[2]  See e.g. MJ Rosenberg, “Congress to Palestinians: Drop Dead!”, Political Correction (May 25th, 2011), http://is.gd/9QGtPx , slightly altered on http://is.gd/oQjUt9 .
[3]  David Horovitz, “How Palestinians will use the GA to advance statehood”, The Jerusalem Post (March 25th, 2011), http://is.gd/Myp8pF .


Update 2011.05.29 : In the last paragraph I talk loosely about “other models” that could be thought of to deal with the question of territories and two states. In fact, I didn’t want to blow up the post even further with a discussion of how a confederation of two states could be an answer. In fact, one main problem the whole discussion faces is that we interpret, conceive, or equate statehood with territory. This premise urges for solutions that divides the same territory into two homelands. This approach, for many reasons, seems unworkable now. There have to be two states on the same territory.This may be a confederacy in which, e.g., the Palestinians and Arabs grant security for the Jewish people while the Jewish people does the same for the Palestinians. A slightly different model is the “Parallel States”-model, in which two states share the same territory. Such a proposal was made very recently by Mark LeVine and Mathias Mossberg Parallel states: A new vision for peace. The author suggest that “[c]itizenship would follow the citizen wherever she or he may live within the territory of Israel/Palestine, not the territory itself.” When statehood isn’t longer attached to territory but to the citizens, the struggle for distinct homelands could be obsolete. Of course, it is rather doubtful whether orthodox Judaism with its essential connection of Jewishness to the Holy Land can even conceptually sever the ties in order to make space for a second nation in this territory. And likewise is the Palestinian yearning for the own territory something that can’t easily be changed or transformed. But it should be noted that we have to think along some such lines in order to come to a solution, imperfect as it may be, that does not grant the mere existence of one population by denying the other. There are no better or lesser victims. One suffering must not be traded off against the other.


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One Response to Why There Are Still Settlements In The West Bank

  1. Renata Avila says:

    I think you will like to read the opinions at Bitter Lemons http://www.bitterlemons.net/about.php

    Also this documentary offers an interesting point of view http://toshootanelephant.com/


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