Colonizing the West Bank in the name of security and religion

In defending their hold on the West Bank, the Israeli government and public often present arguments relating to its purported religious significance or to security considerations. A historical and pragmatic analysis of those arguments prove they fail to stand the test of reason.

By Lorenzo Kamel

Ramallah — With settlements in the West Bank expanding continuously, any vision for a feasible agreement in the region is fading. The solution of the settlement issue would not automatically bring about a full-fledged peace, but it is a necessary step in that direction. And even though no state recognizes Israel beyond the 1967 “lines,” the present Israeli government continues to justify the settlements through two central arguments: religion and security. Both are, however, applied selectively.

Religion, on the one hand, is evoked by settlers and the religious right as justification for the colonization of the West Bank, which they call “Judea and Samaria,” because – as they argue – “it represents the heart of the historic Jewish homeland.” If this is the reason for colonizing land, however, Israel should give up the coast between Ashdod and Ashkelon, which has never been part of the ancient Israelite kingdoms. The numerous archaeological expeditions carried out over decades in Ashkelon – one of five ancient Philistine cities, which today encompasses what was, until 1948, the Palestinian village of al-Majdal – have confirmed that it was never conquered by the ancient Israelites. One verse in the Book of Judges seems to refute this, indicating that the area was conquered and subdued for a handful of years, but this verse itself is contradicted in the very same chapter of the Book. And even if one assumes that there was a conquest, the occupation of an area for a few years does not mean that it represented part of the “historic Jewish homeland.” Otherwise, the many Philistine raids and sometimes occupations of Israelite towns as far east as the Jordan River valley would also make these areas “less” Israelite.

The “security” argument, which glosses over the economic exploitation of the West Bank, may be even more important than the “religion” argument, since it is employed by the Israeli government in the international arena. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently claimed, “In Israel, it’s not possible to go back to the 1967 lines – because these lines are indefensible.” The Israeli prime minister and most of his constituents believe that what happens beyond the “separation barrier” is justified in the name of security.

This “barrier,” in some places a cast of eight-meter high concrete and in others ditches and barbed wire, has been an important contribution to the quelling of Palestinian terrorism. This is a statistically proven fact. The psychological humiliation and exploitation of natural resources that are taking place beyond it, however, cannot in any way be justified by the legitimate need for Israel to rely on safe “borders.” Even today, as confirmed by this recently filmed video by European and Israeli activists, dozens of quarries are currently active in the West Bank, providing some 12 million tons of stone, gravel, and dolomite annually, 75 percent of which is used for construction inside Israel. Millions of Palestinians are deprived of their freedom of movement, thanks partly to dozens of checkpoints throughout the West Bank. Moreover, in the Palestinian territories, new drilling of aquifer systems for the consumption of settlers and Israeli citizens are being built. Finally, in about 60 percent of the West Bank, there is exclusive control of the Israeli authorities over every aspect of civil life. Only a simplistic approach, or one marred by bias, could accept such a reality in the name of “security.”

Besides religion and security, a third argument is often evoked against a Palestinian state: the specter of a “Jew-free – Judenrein” West Bank. On September 23, addressing the United Nations Gernal Assembly, Netanyahu used the term “Judenrein” to explain the possible scenarios that would arise if the West Bank became part of a Palestinian state: “The Jewish state of Israel will always protect the rights of all its minorities, including the more than one million Arab citizens of Israel. I wish I could say the same thing about a future Palestinian state, for as Palestinian officials made clear the other day – in fact, I think they made it right here in New York – they said the Palestinian state won’t allow any Jews in it. They’ll be Jew-free – Judenrein.”

This last statement is extremely important to consider, in so far as it shows a fairly common feeling in Israel. To understand the view of those behind the wall I turned to Nazmi Jubeh, one of the most outstanding living Palestinian archaeologists, now head of the department of History of Birzeit University in Ramallah: “I think,” Jubeh said, “that slogans are not useful and do not explain the complexity of things. Any Jew who wants to live in our community, following the rules which this entails, must be free to do so. It’s quite a different story, however, to request that the settlers who arrived here by force and in defiance of international law can ipso facto be entitled to see their actions justified. In other words, those who want to live in a future Palestinian state must do so under the law and not as colonialists. When Israel was created, the Palestinians were already here, and accounted for the vast majority of the local population. This is why there are now over one million Palestinians in Israel, many of whom are known as ‘internally displaced persons’ [IDPs]. In constrast to this, settlers arrived in the Palestinian territories through violence and incentives received in recent years from Israeli governments. Equating the former to the latter is not only simplistic, but also morally reprehensible.”

In October 1995, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the Likud in the opposition, spoke in the Knesset, addressing then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin: “You said the Bible is not our land registry. I [Netanyahu] say: The Bible is our registry, our mandate, our proof of ownership.” Rabin and Netanyahu at the time were already living in two different realities. The first was convinced that international law takes precedence over “biblical legitimacy.” The second was and remains convinced of the exact opposite: “We will continue preserving the settlement as well as the law,” Netanyahu clarified just last week, “and there is no contradiction between the two.” Despite the untimely death of Rabin, the “two souls of Israel” are still alive today, perhaps more than ever. Only if the first one – embodied by Rabin and his memory – will have the upper hand, a defusion of the current “zero-sum game” will be possible: a “game” that tears apart the Palestinian people and makes Israel increasingly isolated from the rest of the international community.

Lorenzo Kamel is a Visiting Fellow at Birzeit University. He holds an MA in Israeli Society and Politics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an MA in Philosophy from La Sapienza University of Rome, and is presently a PhD candidate at Bologna University. He is the author of many academic articles and two books. He writes for the American think tank Aspen and the Italian daily newspaper Europa.