Settlements: A Userís Guide

by Gabriel Ash

Dissident Voice

May 17, 2003


Colin Powell's list of humiliations in Israel included a lecture by Prime Minister Sharon explaining to him why Israel cannot stop expanding settlements. Sharon asked Powell, "What do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?"


The imagery of settlers as benign civilians, just wanting to live their lives as they choose, serves Sharon's intentions of burying the "roadmap" and saving Israel once more from the looming threat of peace. Indeed, the continuing expansion of settlements during the Oslo process already "saved" Israel from peace once. From 1993 to 2001, settler population in the West Bank increased 91 percent, convincing Palestinians that Israel had no intentions to leave the Occupied Territories.


But that imagery is false. West Bank settlements are nothing like suburbs in New Jersey. They are a fundamental aspect of what is unique about Israel. It is therefore necessary to understand settlements for what they really are -- weapons.


The Hebrew words for "settlement" are yeshuv and hityashvut. Israelis do not apply these words to settlements in the Occupied Territories, but rather to earlier settlements: the kibbutzim and moshavim (collective farming communities) created both before and after 1948 in areas that are today Israel. The opposite of yeshuv is wasteland or desert, Shmamma. The usage hints at the mythical "emptiness" of Palestine in early Zionist imagination -- the desert that awaits the settlers to make it bloom. This myth ignores the fact that Palestinians already lived in Palestine for generations.


In contrast, the Hebrew word used to describe post-1967 settlements in the Occupied Territories is hitnakhlut, a word of biblical origin which means roughly "settling down on one's patrimony." The opposite meaning is nomadism, wandering in the desert. The change in usage reflects the transformation of Zionism from the colonial mindset of the early settlers to the religious fanaticism of the post 1967 settlers.


Another set of words that describe settlements in Hebrew comes from military terminology: lookout, outpost -- Mitzpe, Ma'akhaz, He'akhzut, etc. The early Zionist settlers are often referred to as "pioneers" in English. However, the Hebrew word they themselves use, khalutz, comes from the military lexicon. It means "scout."


In all their forms, settlements are therefore something other than civilian habitations. They are actions at the front of the war of conquest, a war alternatively conceived as a struggle against the desert (hityashvut), a struggle against squatters (hitnakhlut), or, more honestly, a struggle for military control (Mitzpe, He'akhzut). All three are metaphors of war: civilization vs. nature, landlords vs. squatters, us vs. them. The problem is that what appears as nature is an existing civilization; the so-called squatters have an ownership title; and "us" is also "them."


Settling also means vanquishing the internal nomad, the wandering Jew of the European anti-Semitic discourse, which permeates Zionist imagery. The extreme violence of the settlers is also a matter of this repressed identification: a hatred of the self projected onto the idealized other.


Little about the purpose of the settlement activity is secret. From early on, Zionism uses a military term for the general strategy of building settlements: "the conquest of the land," kibosh ha'adama. As part of a military campaign, settlements in the West Bank follow an explicit plan of attack with clear aims and means written in openly available documents: the Alon plan, the Drobless plan, the Sharon plan, The 100,000 plan, etc.


Like all military actions, settlements must have targets. Natzeret Illit targets Nazareth; Kiriat Arba targets Al-Khalil (Hebron); Kedumim targets Nablus; Ma\'ale Adumim targets the territorial continuity between the northern and the southern West Bank; Ashkelon targets Al-Majdal, the Palestinian town that was ethnically cleansed in 1950, long after the fog of the 1948 war had dissipated, and so on.


Settlements can occupy a strategic position such as a hilltop, a clear line of fire toward a road, a water well, etc.; settlements can bury the traces of a destroyed Palestinian village; they may sit on the outskirts of a Palestinian town, blocking potential urban development, or of a Palestinian village, targeting its agricultural fields; many settlements target the water aquifers.


Since 1948, the first battalion, thrown into action once a settlement has been decided, is composed of bureaucrats -- mapmakers, hydrologists, civil engineers, lawyers, judges, and apparatchiks. Their job is to figure out which land can be confiscated from Palestinians, and how best to disrupt the civil ecology of the target.


Land can be expropriated for "public" use, namely Jewish use; or it can be declared as "abandoned" if it belonged to a refugee. Often, however, the settlement begins as a military camp because "security" is the best legal justification for confiscating private Palestinian property -- a house, an orchard, a field. The NAKHAL brigade is a special paratroop unit whose job includes providing personnel for new settlements disguised as military camps.


Often the land is designated "state land" in order to ward off legal challenge in the specially designed military "appeal committee," which rubber-stamps the armed robbery. "State land" is land Israel reserves for the exclusive benefit of Jews (this is what the term "Jewish State" means in practice). For example, lease contracts in settlements prohibit habitation by non-Jews.


Sometimes the appearance of fairness requires that land taken from Palestinians spends a few years in decontamination, for example, as park land, environmental reserve, etc. before it is "thawed" for its final destination as a new Jewish settlement. This is particularly the case in East Jerusalem.


In the end, it doesn't matter how the land is procured. The Settlement of Shilo, established in 1985, is 45 percent land declared "public," 52 percent land expropriated for "security" reasons, and 3 percent land expropriated for "public" use. Shilo is still 100 percent used as a weapon against the Palestinian population.


After the bureaucrats come the bulldozers, followed by the mobile homes, the construction workers, and finally the settlers. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, who are excluded from most jobs in Israel, can at least feed their families by working as construction workers, erecting the gravestones of their own disappearance.


When families finally move into a new settlement, the war just begins. A settlement (unlike a Palestinian village) needs room to grow, land reserves, an abundance of cheap water, etc., which the state of Israel will provide, often by using resources denied to the target village or town. For example, each settler in Hebron consumes over nine times more water daily than his water-starved Palestinian neighbor.


In addition, a settlement needs access -- a road to connect it with other settlements. Roads are a key mechanism for confiscating Palestinian property. Between August 1994 and September 1996, 4,386 dunam of private land (there are about 4.5 dunams per acre) were confiscated for the purpose of constructing seventeen "bypass" roads. Roads are long and wide and their trajectory can be shifted here and there to achieve maximum impact in terms of houses that must be demolished, orchards that need to be uprooted, and growth that can be stifled. Used properly, a road is a weapon of mass destruction. For example, road 447, which shortens the trip to the Settlement of Ariel by a full five minutes, "necessitated" uprooting one thousand olive trees and confiscating 75 dunams from residents of the two Palestinian villages which Ariel targets. In addition, every road that connects two Jewish settlements doubles as a road that separates two Palestinian towns. Palestinians cannot use "Jewish" roads.


In this manner, the land becomes a palimpsest, in which every act of civil engineering is also its opposite, an act of war: roads increase the distance between people; building houses leads to overcrowding; laying down water pipes creates water shortages, etc. All aspects of human existence are turned into weaponry. Even the sewage the settlement produces is a weapon against downhill Palestinian towns. Every feature in the landscape appears doubly, with a plus sign in the Jewish ecology and with a minus sign in the Palestinian one.


Finally, like all offensive military operations, settlements trigger a defensive reaction, which Israel calls "terrorism." Hence settlements need protection, fences, a security perimeter, a nearby army encampment, a wall, bypass roads, etc. All these require physical space, thus justifying additional land confiscation, additional fields that can be declared off limit to their owners (so that they can be declared state land after three years, as the Ottoman Law prescribes), as well as checkpoints, curfews, missile attacks, imprisonment, assassinations, and so on.


A settlement is an aggressive action in a post-modern war, a genocidal war that cannot be televised even though it happens in full view of the camera.


Chinese military theoreticians Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui write in their 1999 book "Unrestricted Warfare" that in the war of the future there will be no traditional battlefields, no combatants, and no weaponry. The war of the future will happen everywhere, will engage everyone, and will be fought using commonplace everyday objects. In essence, they warn us that there will no longer be a distinction between war, terrorism, and everyday life.


In Palestine, this future is already one hundred years old.


-For detailed data on settlements, see B\'Tselem: www.btselem.org/Download/Land_Grab_Eng.pdf


-- An earlier version of this article appeared in the spring 2003 SustainCampaign.org newsletter.


Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "opssimist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. This article first appeared in Yellow Times.org. Gabriel encourages your comments: gash@YellowTimes.org



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