In January, a man carrying an automatic rifle entered a market in Jerusalem’s Old City, cursed the local merchants, assaulted a young man, and began shooting. Israeli soldiers arrived and protected Jewish citizens, and arrested a Palestinian man. The soldiers then created roadblocks at the gates to the City and interrogated many young Palestinian men.
If you assumed that the shooter was a Palestinian, however, you would be wrong. The violent man was an Israeli settler terrorizing Palestinians. Israeli forces responded by attacking Palestinians.
This is not the usual news we hear about Middle East violence. Not because it is unusual. An Israeli newspaper reported last year that there have been thousands of Jewish settler attacks on Palestinians in recent years, with more than one per day in 2013. Another count by an American organization puts the total at 3 per day since 2011. We hear little about them.
What we learn about the Middle East is too general, too simplistic, and too loaded with presuppositions. We keep getting stories of states and politicians and worldwide organizations, full of pomposity and certainty. It’s worth hearing much smaller stories. It takes a lot of small stories to reach any understanding. But if the truth lies anywhere, it’s in hundreds of stories about people we can imagine in places we can envision.
Every story begins in the middle, and every West Bank story begins thousands of years ago. Here’s one story I couldn’t find anywhere, so I had to piece it together myself. We’ll start with the establishment of the Jewish settlement of Shvut Rachel in 1991, in the middle of the West Bank, closer to Jordan than to Jerusalem. The Israeli government in the 1980s had declared Palestinian land on the West Bank to be “public” if it had only been partially cultivated over the past 10 years. A group of settlers took some of this land to create Shvut Rachel, which the Israeli government considered illegal, until recently; it’s been legal since 2012. One of the Shvut Rachel settlers, Jack Teitel from Florida, began a reign of terror against local Palestinians after he arrived in 1999. Teitel was convicted by an Israeli court in 2013 of murdering two Palestinians. Other Shvut Rachel settlers pushed further out in 2000, occupying a nearby hilltop which they called Esh Kodesh, without any permission from the Israeli government, a mile beyond any Jewish settlement, on some private Palestinian land that had been declared “public” by Israel and some Palestinian land that was still private. Picture a dozen trailers on a rocky hill, called an “outpost”.
Settlers create so many of these illegal outposts on the West Bank that the Israeli government has had to dismantle dozens which were not even inhabited. But not nearly all: a road was paved to Esh Kodesh and precious water lines were run back through Shvut Rachel.
Almost immediately there were confrontations between Esh Kodesh settlers and the local Palestinians. The settlers built a fence around “their land”, and then demanded that the local farmers stay out of fields just outside of their fence, to which the government agreed. They began ploughing land outside of the fence, which is fertile enough to support vineyards, unusual in that rocky landscape.
Violent incidents piled up. In March 2011, settlers invaded Qusra village, provoking a gunfight there. In July 2011 settlers attacked some herdsmen and butchered sheep. The army arrived and “dispersed” the Palestinians. Then the army set up a base in September 2011 near Esh Kodesh. In 2012 Palestinians’ olive trees were vandalized.
A United Nations report in fall 2012 noted two consecutive weeks when “settlers from Esh Kodesh have attacked Palestinian civilians from Qusra village.” 126 Palestinians and 32 settlers had been injured that year on the West Bank. Another report counted 10,000 Palestinian trees damaged or destroyed in 2011.
Finally at the end of 2012, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinians could no longer be barred from working their own land around Esh Kodesh. Israeli soldiers had to physically remove settlers who protested that decision. In December, Jews uprooted olive trees and stoned Qusra homes. In January 2013, Palestinians attacked settler vineyards outside of Esh Kodesh. In February, settlers with guns attacked Qusra and wounded 6 Palestinians. More uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, but also planting of trees on Palestinian land that Esh Kodesh wanted. Israeli officials arrived to uproot those illegal trees in January 2014. Esh Kodesh settlers again went out to Qusra, but this time they were captured by hastily arranged security details of villagers, assaulted, and turned over to Israeli soldiers called by the Palestinians.
There is no reason to believe that the outward push of Esh Kodesh settlers, and whole settler movement, will stop. Since Shvut Rachel was founded in 1991, the number of settlers has tripled. In 2012, the Israeli general in charge of the West Bank characterized settler violence as “terrorism”. The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, the Justice Minister and the Public Security Minister argued in 2013 for using that label for violent settlers, but nothing happened.
I think there is no history, recent or far in the past, which justifies the economic dispossession of West Bank Palestinians. But that’s not what settlers think. At the Tomb of the Patriarch in Hebron, on the Jewish side, I met a young man, who was explaining to tourists what they were looking at and to me what he believed about the West Bank. He told me, “God gave it to us.” Meaning him, an American Jew, whose lineage is probably more than a thousand years removed from this land, if it actually connects at all. Excluding the people who have lived there all that time, constructing terraces and planting trees and finding water and building roads.
With great patience protesting illegal actions by Israeli settlers and government, with self-defense squads to protect their homes and fields, with occasional attention from Western media, the residents of the West Bank will gradually lose their lands and livelihoods. Unless something is done to reverse decades of Israeli policy.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 17, 2015