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West Bank Settlements

by William H. Benson

October 15, 2020

In June of 1967, Israel’s army captured the Sinai and Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and East Jerusalem and the West Bank from the Jordanians. Although Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982, after brokering a deal with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, “its occupation of the rest of the territory seized in 1967 is ongoing.”

The West Bank is a landlocked strip of land, 2,263 square miles, sandwiched between Jordan to the east, and Israel to the north, west, and south. It is the geographic center of a fierce struggle that pits Jew against Muslim, Israeli against Palestinian, Hebrew against Arabic, and western against eastern.

Until the Jewish people, mainly Zionists from Europe, showed up out of nowhere early in the 20th century to claim the Palestinians’ land as their own, the Palestinians lived as they had for centuries, even millennium, back to the first century.

Often, they lived in stone huts. They farmed citrus trees, tended goats and sheep, rode mules on paths and trails, and built terraces on the steep hillsides, where they planted their now ancient olive trees. In a village, there was a small aristocracy: large landowners, lawyers, doctors, and shop-owners.

Palestinian society was agricultural, rural, and pastoral. The people loved to hike their hills, tend their trees that bore fruit each year, January through April, and watch over their flocks. In May 1967, 1 million Palestinians lived in West Bank villages; today there are 3 million.

Imagine the Palestinians’ shock when the powerful Israelis took control of the entire West Bank. The Palestinians now say that their land is “occupied.” It is, and they have no voice in its government.

In May 1967, no Israelis lived in the West Bank; today 430,000 Israelis live in 238 towns and villages, called “settlements,” scattered across the West Bank. A better word though is “subdivision,” an area of homes similar to those you see outside of Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas.

The Israelis select a site for a subdivision, and bring in bull-dozers to knock off the hills’ tops and flatten them into a level plain with a gorgeous view some distance away, of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, or the Mediterranean. In their rush, they crush the crude stone huts, and uproot the olive and fruit trees.

They then construct cookie-cutter homes, each with a red-clay tile roof, white walls, a garage, perhaps a swimming pool in the back yard, green grass and palm trees in the front, and paved streets. They construct a three-meter high wall around the subdivision.

The Palestinians resent how the Israelis took their land, homes, farms, and olive trees. What people would not feel outraged by this theft of land, and by its dramatic transformation?

The Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh wrote in his memoir, “Strangers in the House,” “My life then was shaped by the contrast between the meagerness of life in Ramallah and the opulence of life in the city across the hills. There were daily reminders of that cataclysmic fall from grace.”

The Israelis construct highways that allow West Bank settlers to commute back into Israel, to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, where they work in offices or in factories, but the Israeli authorities do not permit the Palestinians to drive on these same highways.

Instead, the Israelis have set up numerous check points, where the lines are long and the Palestinians are forced to wait for hours before gaining permission from the armed guards to continue their journey on side roads. As a result, the Palestinians have a difficult time moving about the West Bank.

Sewage from a subdivision atop a flattened hill can flow down into the wadi, the Arabic name for the deep gorge betwixt the hills. The waste kills the trees, and poisons the natural water wells.

Ariel is a typical subdivision, first established in 1978. It lies 20 kilometers into the West Bank and 34 kilometers west of the Jordan border. In the 1980s and 1990s, some 6,000 Soviet immigrants settled in Ariel, due to the cheap housing and Israeli government incentives to move there.

Today, Ariel claims 20,540 residents, several shopping centers, two industrial zones, a library, and a modern campus for Ariel University. It is the fourth largest subdivision in the West Bank, and is not going away anytime soon.

One writer wrote, “It is harder and harder to imagine that someday the Israeli government will evacuate these settlers.”

The subdivisions are controversial, because “they are Jewish communities on land that Palestinians want to become a part of a future Palestinian state,” but how?

Yes, other differences exist between Jew and Arab, between Israeli and Palestinian, between rich and poor, between powerful and powerless, between Western and Middle Eastern cultures, but it is the land grab and the discriminatory land policy that galls the Palestinian people even today.

Next time, in these pages, a further discussion on Palestinians and Israelis.