On Israel, Jewish Settlements and the Future

Native Palestinian Jews lived peacefully amongst Arabs for centuries in what is now known as Palestine. In the late 19th century, the Zionist movement gathered momentum, advocating immediate reclamation of the Holy Land in this same region. In 1916, Britain’s war resources were nearing exhaustion and it sought the political influence of Jews to attract American and Russian help for the war effort. For this, Britain decided to assist with the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland. British support for Zionism was official with the Balfour Declaration declaring that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

In 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The plan was accepted in principle by Zionists but Arab states declared that they would not be bound by the decision. Fighting commenced on 30 November 1947 and lasted for several months, with establishment of the state of Israel and Jordanian occupation of the West Bank. There is a deep-seated conviction within Israel that the 1948 conflict was a ‘David versus Goliath victory’, where a new, small Jewish nation overcame several larger Arab states.

In 1967, Israel defeated Jordan, Egypt and Syria to win the Six-Day War and capture the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. In 1973, an Arab coalition launched a joint surprise attack on Israelis, the Yom Kippur War. In 1978, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David Accords, with the Sinai returned to Egypt and diplomatic relations normalised between the two countries.

Between 1987 and 1993, the First Intifada led to approximately 2,000 Palestinian deaths, after which the Oslo Peace Accords established a set of agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, leading to the establishment of the division of the West Bank’s territory into Areas A, B and C  as well as a number of joint mechanisms such as the Joint Water Committee.

The Oslo Accords established that 80% of water extracted from the Mountain Aquifer would serve Israel and the remaining 20% would serve Palestinians. In this scenario, Israeli water use would not be reduced and that any additional water for the Palestinians would be extracted from previously untapped sources. In practice, Palestinians have access to less water than what was agreed upon due to technical problems, decreased water level of the Mountain Aquifer, overestimation of available groundwater. 

Between 2000 and 2005, the Second Intifada led to over 3,000 Palestinian deaths and almost 1,000 Israeli deaths. During these years, bombings and massacres aimed at Israeli civilians occurred in urban centres such as Tel Aviv, Netanya and Haifa.

It is important to understand this historical context when viewing the dynamics of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From the view of Israel, there has been persistent Arab aggression, including the 1929 Hebron Massacre, wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, as well as the two intifadas. Israelis could well highlight the Palestinian rhetoric over the past 50 years (including Article 18 of the Palestinian National Charter of 1964 and speeches by Yasser Arafat) as well as the 1,400 terrorism-related Israeli deaths since the signing of the Oslo Accords as evidence of a persistent threat, and importantly, a justification for the high levels of security.

The ongoing need for national security extends to water management, which Israel sees as essential to ensure its survival. Since the Six-Day War, Israel has solidified its hydro-hegemony, leading to its total control of groundwater and the Jordan River’s headwater and flow. Auja EcoCenter staff noted that any attempt to implement projects that improved the quality of Auja Spring were prevented by the Civil Administration (CA). For example, seedlings planted last year to support Auja Spring’s banks were ordered to be removed. Previous attempts to install rubbish bins, seating, or signage were all stopped by the CA. While the reason for this policy is unclear, Auja’s residents speculate that it may be to reduce Palestinian connection to their natural environment, or to serve as evidence to outsiders that Palestinians cannot take care of their natural resources. Alternatively, it could be the case that prevention of environmental management projects is part of the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) strategy to ‘make its presence felt’ across the West Bank.

In my last week in Israel, I made two excursions from Tel Aviv into four southern West Bank settlements to gain an understanding of Jewish Settlers’ perspective towards conflict. The first excursion was to Hebron and the second was to a group of settlements in Gush Etzion, about 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem. I wanted to understand why Settlers moved here and their reaction to the common perspection that accelerated settlement construction was undermining the peace process.

The first excursion was to Hebron, the only Palestinian city with a Jewish settlement in the heart of it. While Jews and Muslims had once coexisted in Hebron for centuries, today about 850 Jewish Settlers reside around the Old Quarter under heavy security. Large sections of the city have been evacuated as part of the  IDF’s ‘sterilization policy’ – protecting settlements by closing parts of the city to Palestinian access.

A conversation with former IDF soldiers revealed that the IDF’s primary mission in the West Bank is to protect Jewish settlements and Settlers as efficiently as possible. One of the ways the IDF achieves this is by ‘making its presence felt’ to deter Palestinian aggression. This included regular patrols, large deployments of soldiers on streets in Areas ‘B’ and ‘C’ and late night raids into Palestinian homes. 

A second strategy is to maintain positive relationships with Settlers, especially in volatile cities such as Hebron. The former soldiers explained that this results in the IDF establishing covert agreements with Hebron’s Settlers and ignoring Settler violence towards Palestinians in order to maintain peace. With no authority to prosecute and a tendency for the IDF to keep the Settlers onside, situations emerge where the army is reluctant to assist the police when trying to control Settler aggression. 

You can read more about Settler influence on the IDF here

The second excursion was to the Jewish settlements of Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad, located within the West Bank, about 12 kilometres south of Jerusalem. Settlers spoke of the peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians in and around these settlements. Most Settlers  consisted of young families that were attracted to a low-cost alternative to urban living. Although these Settlers appeared to be attracted for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, many pointed out how the Bible identified the land west of the Jordan River as Judea, the rightful ‘land of the Jews’.

Settlers in Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad described the peaceful coexistence alongside their Palestinian neighbours, who they said were not only their employees, but also guests at their social events. One Settler spoke of how Palestinian neighbours would attend their bah mitzvahs, and how they would give them their hand-me-down clothes for their children. In this area, Jewish Settlers were able to jog on communal roads completely unarmed, a far cry from what I had observed elsewhere. Stories of coexistence between Settlers and their Palestinian neighbours contradicted many stories in the media.

Jewish Settlers in Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad expressed frustration at the discrepancy between Palestinian citizens’ views towards their settlements and the narrative presented by both the Palestinian Authority and the media who settlers believe benefit from exaggerating the conflict narrative. Settlers interact daily with Palestinians professionally and socially and feel that peaceful coexistence only gets disturbed when tensions are created by outsiders. While many Settlers were either supportive of the status quo or believed in annexation of the West Bank, one Jewish Settler named Danny advocated for expansion of Israel’s borders to include parts of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq. You can read more about Danny here, here and here

It was difficult to accept that Jewish Settlers and Palestinians coexisted peacefully to such an extent. After all, many Palestinians would have been employed in settlements constructed on lands originally owned by their families.

As I visited on a Friday, there were no Palestinians around to verify the Settlers’ stories.

Following 9 weeks in Auja, I had developed a mostly negative impression of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank. On the one hand, there were elements of coexistence. Jewish Settlers shopped at local Palestinian shops and employed Palestinian workers, who otherwise would have few employment prospects. However, Palestinians received a much lower wage, even when compared to foreign workers, for example from Thailand, for the same amount of work. I heard many stories of poor healthcare within settlements, and Palestinians being forced to work with injuries. I also heard stories of aggressive Settlers shooting at local Bedouin groups who were deemed to be too close to their properties. 

The presence of Jewish Settlers in the West Bank was a daily reminder to my Palestinian colleagues of the injustices that they face. On a 10 minute drive from Auja village to Auja Spring, we would pass two settlements and an outpost, isolated like green oases on a barren landscape. It was known that the area’s water resources were diverted to the settlements, and traditional agriculture in the area paid the price.

If Israel’s dominant narrative can be perceived as the need for security, Palestine’s can be perceived as the need to address injustices. The alliance between British imperialism and Zionism is seen as a classic example of the British policy of seizing another nation’s land and resources and suppressing its identity. For 70 years, Palestinians have had the injustice reaffirmed through capture of natural resources, settlement expansion and IDF policies of ‘making its presence felt’. 

Nonetheless, I observed how Palestinians mask the overwhelming injustice with good humour. When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s image appeared on television one afternoon, a colleague shouted “Ahh.. Ahlan wa Sahlan” (welcome). On another occasion, driving special “Jewish” bus stops, complete with heavily armed IDF security, my Palestinian driver jested under his breath, “Hey guys, wanna lift into town?” Another Palestinian colleague recalled how IDF personnel would raid his house during the night, a part of the IDF’s strategy to “make its presence felt”. As his young family were gathered in their front room, he suggested to the soldiers with a smile that perhaps they were being filmed, and that the footage would be on YouTube the next day.

In both the case of Israel and Palestine, the dominant narrative can stop pragmatic solutions towards peace and prosperity. For Israel, protection against violence has meant maintaining a  military regime that only increases frustration and hatred. Often, “security” justified a number of actions without consideration of the consequences. The former soldiers that I had spoken to identified the absence of a discussion within Israel about the morality of the IDF’s strategies and how these strategies have the potential to make the political climate more difficult.

The former soldiers explained is a 12-year-old Jewish Settler and a 12-year-old Palestinian both picked up a rock and threw it, the Settler would be treated as a minor under Israeli law, but the Palestinian would be tried in a military court. While these actions are intended to increase security, they are just as likely to reinforce the dominant Palestinian narrative of injustice. 

For Palestine, “injustice” prevents citizens and decision-makers from implementing measures that could improve their livelihoods. For example, the perception that Israel had stolen Palestinian water resources meant residents were unwilling to use recycled water or to even conserve domestic water use. “Why should we use recycled water when our freshwater is diverted to swimming pools in settlements?”, they would ask. Jewish Settlers in Gush Etzion also spoke of the the need for the Palestinian Authority to build a peaceful and viable state more effectively. They highlight how the Palestinian Authority received large amounts of money from donors and supporters, which is not reflected in the quality of Palestinian infrastructure, basic utilities, schools and hospitals. There is genuine concern amongst Settlers that the aid cycle encourages dependency on others and reinforces a sense of victimhood that prevents pragmatic nation-building. 

While there are profound injustices towards Palestinians, there are a number of things that Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian citizens could implement to improve conditions on the ground. Updated water infrastructure that connected Palestinian towns and Jewish settlements could, in theory, lead to greater water security for all. However, the fact that Palestinians would have to share their network with a Jewish Settlement, was completely unacceptable.

This highlights the relevance of historical memory when seeking practical solutions to the conflict. One Settler from Tekoa strongly advocated the need for Palestinians to forget injustices of the past and to focus on building a strong and resilient society with the best available resources, much as Israel did in the past 70 years. However, the acceptance of the status quo amongst Jewish Settlers discounts the injustice and powerlessness felt daily by many Palestinians. It’s difficult to build a wastewater treatment plant when it takes several years for Israel to grant the permit for its construction. Likewise, the use of violence by Palestinian groups, frustrated by years of injustice undermines the Israeli historical need for security. For peaceful coexistence to occur, it is important that each side acknowledges, rather than forgets, one another’s prevailing narratives.

Given my observations over the past three months, it is worth reflecting on some possible approaches for the future. Firstly, it is useful to explain some of the trade-offs between a one-state and two-state solution. 

If a one-state solution is pursued, Israel is likely to lose either its Jewish affinity or its democracy, given that population projections in the West Bank alone are expected to explode over the coming decades. An Arab majority inside a democratic state would almost certainly jeopardise the Jewish status of Israel.  If Israel doesn’t want an Arab majority but still prefers a one-state, the only options it has is to make Palestinians second-class citizens, or persuade Palestinians to migrate to surrounding states, which is impossible. 

If a two-state solution is pursued, Israel would leave the West Bank and the Palestinian people would elect their own government. Israel would cut provision of water, electricity and infrastructure. Areas A, B and C would be dissolved. This options leads to the risk of the West Bank electing representatives that are hostile to Israel, similar to what occurred in Gaza during 2006. In addition, approximately 400,000 Jewish Settlers would need to relocate. On 28 December 2016, former US Secretary of State articulated why he believed a two-state solution was the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace.

There would also be less opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to coexist. This is something I believe would contribute greatly to peace in the region. Ongoing interaction is already one of the foundational beliefs that drive the environmental peacemaking hypothesis adopted by EcoPeace. That is, through regular interaction on common interest, such as environmental management, trust and understanding can be cultivated between two different groups of people. While this approach may provide dividends between communities, at a national level Israel’s unwillingness to cede water resources means creative solutions are required to ensure Palestine receives a fair share of water. One of these solutions could be the water-energy nexus, where Israel, Jordan and Palestine share water and energy resources with one another. 

In my experience, public opinion toward political solutions is split down the middle. In a survey of Israelis by David Brooks and Julie Trottier, only slightly more respondents were in favour of their government holding targeted negotiations with Palestinians over water. Their research found that younger people and those who defined themselves as religious were less supportive of holding negotiations about water. 

Many Israelis I spoke to explained that the conflict had left them fatigued. One Israeli explained to me that it was like watching a divorce that kept going on. Those who do express their opinion on the issue of settlements are also divided. Through disinterest and fatigue from years of conflict, most Israelis do not visit the West Bank or closely follow developments there. They are simply not exposed to how the conflict affects men, women and children seeking to go about their lives.

There is no inherent reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved in our lifetime. Palestinian Jews and Arabs coexisted in the region for centuries before the establishment of the state of Israel and my experiences in Tekoa, Nokdim and Kfar Eldad demonstrate how the conditions can be set to facilitate coexistence. Unprecedented Arab-Israeli contact blossomed after the 1993 Accords, with businessmen meeting to discuss joint ventures, Qatar was studying how to supply Israel with natural gas and leaders were investigating how to link Arab and Israeli electricity grids.

The potential for coexistence was clear to me when I spoke to a Palestinian, aged 19, whose father was killed by an Israeli soldier. He had joined an organisation called Seeds of Peace, that brings together young people from either side of the conflict to help them understand one another. He explained to me that he initially didn’t want to shake his Israeli colleagues hand, but today counts Israelis among his friends. I often heard stories of Palestinians not wanting to associate with Israelis, then meeting one and changing their minds.

For peace to prevail, there needs to be acknowledgement of one another’s dominant narrative. For Israel, this is likely to include the need for security. For Palestine, it is likely to include the need to address injustices. The Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative project by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-On is an excellent example of how this might occur. Once these narratives are identified and deconstructed, there is potential to work in each group’s best interest. For Palestine, this means looking at practical solutions that they can apply right now to address water shortages. Understanding the Israeli need for security, Palestinian violence must cease and be condemned by Palestinian leaders in clear terms. However, Palestinian citizens must have peaceful avenues to express their concerns. John F. Kennedy famously observed that those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

Finally, there needs to be more regional-based collaboration on water management issues. This should include transboundary cooperation for environmental conservation, international river basin management and joint environmental monitoring programs could enhance cooperation between communities or countries. EcoPeace rightfully advocates for water to come to the front of negotiations and become an afterthought. With the Mountain Aquifer becoming increasingly polluted, sanitation solutions desperately required and water availability diminishing, there has never been a more important time for regional powers to develop solutions that would benefit all. 

In my final days at Auja, a children’s choir stayed at the Center for 3 nights to rehearse. The theme of their songs was Freedom and they performed a concert on the final day. When we were cleaning up, I saw this on the table. I hope for the child’s sake that the one day will come sooner rather than later. 

Further Reading

Bar-On, M 2006, ‘Conflicting Narratives or Narratives of a Conflict: Can the Zionist and Palestinian Narratives of the 1948 War Be Bridged?’, in RI Rotberg (ed) Israeli and Palestinian narratives of conflict: History’s double helix, Indiana University Press, pp. 142-173.

EcoPeace Middle East, ‘Water & Energy Nexus’, EcoPeace Middle East, viewed 31 January 2017, <http://foeme.org/www/?module=projects&record_id=130&gt;. 

Jenkins, K 2000, ‘Why Bother with History’, in Tamsin Spargo (ed.), Reading the Past: Literature and History, Palgrave, New York, pp. 147-155.

Jewish Virtual Library 2016, ‘Number of Fatalities 1920-Present’, Jewish Virtual Library, viewed 1 February 2017, < http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/number-of-terrorism-fatalities-in-israel >.

Kennedy, JF 1962, ‘Address on the first Anniversary of the Alliance for Progress’ March 13, 1962, viewed 3 February 2017, <http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=9100&gt;.

Renger, J 1998, ‘The Middle East Peace Process: Obstacles to Cooperation over Shared Waters’, in W Scheumann & M Schiffler (eds), Water in the Middle East, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Chicago, pp. 47-55.

Tessler, M 2006, ‘Narratives and myths about Arab intransigence toward Israel’, in RI Rotberg (ed) Israeli and Palestinian narratives of conflict: History’s double helix, Indiana University Press, pp. 174-193.

Zeitoun, M 2008, Power and water in the Middle East: The hidden politics of the Palestinian-Israeli water conflict. I.B. Tauris, London.

Jewish Settlement and Palestinian West Bank population data sourced from 1, 2, 3, 45 & 6

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