Israeli settlements have created a ‘state within a state’

Not only physical settler violence goes largely unpunished — the structural violence of those driving the settlement enterprise, in the form of open land theft and everything it entails, also goes largely unaddressed. What keeps the long arm of the law at bay?

Right-wing Israeli settlers demonstrate after marching from Ma’aleh Adumim settlement to the E1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, during a protest calling for an expansion of Jewish settlements in E1, West Bank, February 13, 2014. (Activestills)
Right-wing Israeli settlers demonstrate after marching from Ma’aleh Adumim settlement to the E1 area on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, during a protest calling for an expansion of Jewish settlements in E1, West Bank, February 13, 2014. (Activestills)

A primetime investigative news program revealed to all of Israel last week widespread forgery in the purchase of Palestinian land by Jewish settlers. The program, Channel 10’s “Hamakor” (“The Source”), fronted by investigative journalist Raviv Drucker, uncovered corruption, distortion, manipulation and outright criminal activity on the part of buyers, lawyers and so-called “straw men” who helped push the fraudulent deals through.

The forgeries are nothing new. Just last month settlement expert Dror Etkes gave an example that is typical of the kind of murky deals revealed on “Hamakor,” wherein a Palestinian “signed off” on the sale of his plot of land 43 years after his own death.

Also not new is the revelation on “Hamakor” that corruption in favor of settlement building reaches right into the upper stratosphere of Israel’s political elite, in this case via Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, prominent settler leader, former Jewish Underground member and welcome face in Israel’s corridors of power. Right-wing settler organization Elad, to give just one example, has done very well out of the government body that deals with the “requisition” of Palestinian land (which more often amounts to expropriation) in recent years. There, too, issues of falsification and fraud abound.

Yes, the settler company Drucker investigated, Al-Watan (which, as an extra poke in the eye, means “homeland” in Arabic), that allegedly made most of its acquisitions using forged documents, is a particularly egregious example of the kind of hooliganism that tends to accompany the takeover of Palestinian land.

But what “Hamakor” revealed isn’t the real story, or at least not the whole story. The real knockout of Drucker’s investigation is what happened afterwards — or to be more precise, what didn’t happen. The Israeli media — like media everywhere, never quick to shy away from a scandal — remained almost entirely silent. Beyond a few perfunctory articles reporting on the facts the program laid out, there was minimal coverage of the implications of what Drucker uncovered.

In order to understand how significant this is, we need to rewind one month and recall the mass media and political brawl that erupted following the airing of another investigative news program, “Uvda,” on competing Channel 2. That program was based on undercover footage by a pair of “spies” whom a right-wing organization embedded with anti-occupation and human rights activists in the West Bank. One section showed high-profile veteran left-winger Ezra Nawi making grotesque comments about turning in a Palestinian selling land to a settler, and that the PA would execute the seller. 

Israeli left-wing activists protest outside the Russian compound police station in West Jerusalem, calling to release the three anti-occupation activists under arrest at the time: Ezra Nawi, Guy Butavia and Nasser Nawaja, on January 21, 2015. (Activestills.org)
Israeli left-wing activists protest outside the Russian compound police station in West Jerusalem, calling to release the three anti-occupation activists under arrest at the time: Ezra Nawi, Guy Butavia and Nasser Nawaja, on January 21, 2015. (Activestills.org)

The press blew up, the prime minister posted about the case on his Facebook page, and Nawi was arrested, as were subsequently Nasser Nawajah — also embroiled in the affair — and Guy Butavia, who was not but is a close associate of Nawi. They were all initially denied the right to meet with a lawyer and had their detention extended numerous times.

In the end all three were released after the police were unable to scratch together a single coherent or substantive charge against them.

Compare that to the aftermath of the airing of “Hamakor,” which brought far more pervasive and concrete findings. Despite multiple documented instances of fraud leading to theft with the names of those responsible on record, not a single person has been arrested. The forgeries are under investigation by the state prosecutor after the police closed the case, but the conviction rate in settler criminal cases is abysmal.

Benjamin Netanyahu did not write a Facebook post about the scandalous facts reveled on the show and Hever is not public enemy number one, despite being a man of the establishment (compared with Nawi, who is poor, a plumber, and of Iraqi descent). The media did not have a field day.

‘The illegality is institutionalized’

But this is about more than forgeries, fraud and hidden cameras. It’s about more than Hever, as effective as he may be. This is about the strange reality that comes to rest on a country when a project of the scale and scope of Israel’s settlement enterprise is itself based on illegality.

Construction takes place in the illegal Israeli settlement of Har Homa in between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, West Bank. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Construction takes place in the illegal Israeli settlement of Har Homa in between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, West Bank. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The illegality is not just in terms of international law. Talia Sasson, a former member of the State’s Attorney’s office, notes in an upcoming documentary about the history of the settlements that the government employs a system whereby it is ‘unaware’ that state funds are being poured into outposts that even Israel considers illegal. As Sasson says in the interview, “the illegality is institutionalized.”

The settlement project — the biggest undertaking in Israel’s history since the founding of the state itself — is, because of the vast military apparatus required to sustain it, akin to the building of a state within a state. Maintaining, expanding and increasing the settlements prompts the government to break some laws while creating others, to say one thing while doing another.

And that’s only half the mess. The insistence that the settlements are an integral part of the self-styled liberal democratic State of Israel comes with its own demands. Intense contortion and airbrushing are required to try and normalize the administration of a territory that operates parallel legal systems depending on one’s ethnicity, with 2.8 million people living under military occupation and half a million living under civil law. Karl Rove may have been speaking about the U.S. government when he told a reporter, “when we act, we create our own reality,” but it is something one could just as easily imagine coming out of Netanyahu’s mouth.

Moreover, impossible sums of money have been poured into settlement building. Disproportionate resources are available to the settlement enterprise and the army, police, intelligence services, the law and the government at best turn a blind eye, and at worst abet wrongdoing. So is it any wonder that physical and structural crime are out of control, and that the various perpetrators enjoy almost total immunity?

As two very different shows in the space of a month proved, there is almost total acceptance of this reality, to the point where barely anyone thinks to question it anymore. And for those who do question it? Neither the law, nor the media, nor the state are on their side.