On the 'Right' to Be a Settler

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December 29, 2009

Life in Israel is complex if not confusing. One can be at a party or at a Kabalat Shabbat at a Liberal Synagogue in West Jerusalem and talk with someone about environmental policy, the separation of religion and state, or feminism, and find that he agrees with your progressive views, only to discover that he is a settler. Not a real ‘hardcore’ settler as some would say but settler-light. Maybe he lives in a Jerusalem “suburb” like Ma’ale Adumim or in Adam, both of which are settlements near Jerusalem which can feel like they are just another Israeli community. Of course to get to Adam, you have to go through the Kalandia checkpoint.

When I go through the checkpoint (not to go to Adam, but to go to Ramallah, on occasion) I travel along the Israeli-built and maintained separation and annexation wall in Al Ram. It is indeed huge. The Israeli security establishment calls it a security barrier (like the East Germans who defined the Berlin Wall as “anti-fascist” defense). In Al Ram, in Palestinian Jerusalem, which borders the Israeli settlement (or “neighborhood”) of Pisgat Ze’ev, The only security I can see is the security of illegal land dispossession that it provides. The monstrosity of the wall divides Al Ram from… Al Ram. It protects Palestinian grandmothers from the terror of having their grandchildren visit them. It protects Palestinian schools from Palestinian school children who need to completely readjust their routes to school. The wall annexes Palestinian land to what is already Israeli-occupied Palestinian land. That is, the barrier snakes its way through the Occupied Territories. It did not displace a single Israeli Jew. No Jew had to give up his or her home, orchards or fields for the wall.

When I mention this to my discussion partner, he is unable to associate his living in what is a settlement with being a settler. After all when we think of settlers, we think of skullcap wearing, gun toting, cursing, people. Maybe they are verbally attacking an old woman in Hebron, stealing olive trees in the “Shomron” or harassing Palestinian schoolgirls on their way to school in the South Hebron Hills. But the secular or moderately Orthodox or even Reform or Conservative Jew who lives in Maale Adumim, Ariel, Efrat, Givat Ze’ev or Adam is no less a settler than his or her counterpart in one of the outposts labeled by Israel’s government as “illegal” (in an effort to cleanse the larger settlements of their inherent illegality) yet often supported by that same government. So, when I think about it, especially being a human rights worker, I find it increasingly difficult to discern – quantitatively and qualitatively – between these settlers. They are all part of the same problem that has damned Israel to a counter-democratic existence. Yet, all the same they are people, human beings, like me or like a Palestinian detainee brutally tortured by Israeli interrogators. They too demand respect for their “rights”.

Is there a human right to be a settler? The Settler movement would have us believe that there is such a right. The discourse emerging from within the settler movement, particularly since the disengagement from Gaza has increasingly manipulated the language of human rights. As I write this essay, on December 10, International Human Rights Day, the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is being interviewed on Israel Radio and is being questioned about the ‘violations’ of the human and civil rights of settlers in light of the so-called “settlement freeze”. I imagine that the interviewer is more intelligent than his questions would indicate, because her other questions provided ample opportunity to point out the long list of Israeli human rights violations in the OPT and within Israel itself.

However, the very idea of associating the settler struggle with a civil rights struggle is nothing new. In fact, about one hour after the interview, Israel Radio published a response by the settler organization for human rights in the Occupied territories, stating that ACRI only defends Palestinians and ignores the rights of settlers. If this is not enough, on the day of this article’s writing, the Netanyahu government, declared a number of settlements to be national priority zones, thus increasing the collective rights of settlers to preferable social and economic treatment above that of other Israelis inside of Israel and, of course, above the rights of Palestinians. Recently, human rights reports are being increasingly answered by these defenders of settler privilege and given airtime in the Israeli media. The alleged moral equivalence is detestable, dangerous and dishonest, yet it continues and is supported by the current government, and its supporters.

I remember listening to the radio prior to the disengagement from Gaza and hearing Pinchas Wallerstein, a settler leader, compare the setters’ struggle to the US civil rights struggle, and the settler leadership to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. The other day on the Knesset TV station Hanan Porat, a settler leader also demanded that “settler human rights” be recognized. In addition to portraying themselves as concentration camp inmates, leaders of the settler movement continue to distort history for their own dishonest purposes. If this was not so disturbing it would be amusing. But it is sad, mostly because no one seems to be willing to challenge their cynical distortion and contemptuous misappropriation of human rights discourses to protect the ongoing settlement enterprise.

The problem is not that settlers call for the respect of human rights, or that they demonstrate and engage in other forms of protest and public advocacy. I would never deny them the right to assemble, protest and argue their case. Nor would I or anyone else in the human rights community advocate that settler rights to due process, freedom of expression and freedom from excessive police force be denied. But, it is not these and or other democratic rights that the settlers demand. Rather their demand of the right to be settlers is disguised in the innocuous language of property rights, access to resources, housing and basic community life.

Most people in democratic societies are familiar with such demands, and would not dream of accepting a situation in which they were denied access to land, the right to purchase a home or add an addition to it after going through the proper process or to be able to join a community of their choice. However, no reasonable person could conceivably assume that these rights should be actualized on stolen land or on land from which its rightful owners and residents were expelled and continue to be denied access. In short, the right to a home is, in my mind inviolable, but the right to be a settler within a colonialist regime of occupation is anything but a right, much less a human right.

The adoption by the settlers of human rights discourse is disturbing no less in light of the forty-two year occupation of Palestinian territory. Settlers are, in fact, illegal residents in the territory, and each home in each settlement in the territory occupied by Israel in 1967 is an illegal entity. That is to say, the demand that the settlers are making, ‘the right to be a settler’ or to be recognized as members of a protected class under a constitutional or rights based system is nothing less than intellectually absurd. However, for 42 years this indeed has been their status. The Israeli government through the army, and its battalion of legal advisers has created an intentionally convoluted system in which the legal is illegal and the illegal is normative. Jewish Israelis have been granted an entitlement to settle in communities illegally built in occupied territory.

Of course, using the word illegal in reference to settlements over the Green Line is not accepted in the official Israeli lexicon. Such activity is not seen as a war crime by Israel or by those who support the Occupation financially and through public activity, especially those self-appointed monitors of select NGOs and classrooms. Yet any normative examination of Israel’s behavior: moving its civilian population into occupied territory; displacing the occupied civilian population; denial of access to land and resources; restricting freedom of movement; and revocation of democratic rights ironically enjoyed by settlers can and should be seen as nothing less than criminal, immoral and corrupt.

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