Settling Israel’s Ancient West Bank Roots

The uproar emitted by the Palestinian Authority and the international community after Israel approved new housing blocks in East Jerusalem – on the eve of renewed peace talks – caused many people to seriously question the logic of the State of Israel.

However the casually and widely accepted proposition that any Israeli construction in the West Bank is somehow indisputably wrong is based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of present realities and Israel’s ancient history.

One only has to travel about 45 minutes outside of Jerusalem to have this conclusion become abruptly clear. In mid-July I had the privilege of attending the opening of a new cultural center and synagogue on the historic hilltop in Ancient Shiloh, an area deemed ‘occupied’ by the international community.

Located in the Ephraim hill-country in the Samarian countryside, the village of Ancient Shiloh was the religious capital of Israel for 300 years before Jerusalem and the existence of the first Temple. Ancient Shiloh was also home to the first tabernacle, Judaism’s earliest holy site, and at one point held the Ark of the Covenant. Both iconic Jewish artifacts pre-date the existence of Islam by over a millennium, and yet the reflexively anti-Israel proletariat in Europe and in the West summarily dismiss the centrality of these artifacts to Jewish identity.

The plaque at Ancient Shiloh.
The plaque at Ancient Shiloh.

Consider a basic comparative example to appreciate Israel’s alleged defiance of international law when building in Shiloh: in the same way that the ummat al-Islamiyah rightfully upholds the sanctity of the site at the Dome of the Rock (saying nothing of its controversial location), the Jewish people justifiably lay claim to the historic significance of geographic locations such as Ancient Shiloh, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and numerous other areas integral to the Jewish faith.

The Ancient Shiloh area was re-settled in 1978 and officially recognized by the Israeli government a year later. Just like the local Muslim populations in East Jerusalem near the Dome of the Rock, a Jewish population too has gradually grown up around Ancient Shiloh.

In the last few years, efforts by various pro-settlement groups were undertaken to establish a permanent structure to commemorate ancient Israel’s ties to the land at Ancient Shiloh. Embodying this effort is the multi-purpose synagogue and cultural building that opened there in July. The building features a sweeping panoramic view and a super-widescreen theatre displaying a top-notch reenactment film which uses the natural Samarian hillside as a real-life backdrop for the film.

Shiloh Synagogue and Cultural Center
The new Ancient Shiloh Synagogue and Cultural Center

Commemorating the opening of this unique facility attracted the who’s who of Israel’s political settlement movement, including politicians Naftali Bennett, leader of The Jewish Home party, and Moshe Feiglin, leader of Jewish Leadership faction of the Likud party and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Their respective political identities and electoral success are based on an unshakeable belief in the historicity and veracity of the Jewish lineage in the land of Israel, including, of course, at places such as Ancient Shiloh.

However, the existence of a factual Jewish lineage does not matter to those whose understanding of Jewish history extends strictly to June 10, 1967, when the borders between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan were transformed by the Six Day War and Israel’s subsequent occupation of formerly Jordanian land. To many observers, Israel’s decision then to capture additional Jordanian territory still constitutes “theft” of Palestinian land, today.

All of which is problematic because the European Union’s recent decision to boycott Israeli investments in the West Bank is also predicated on this flawed logic. The E.U.’s logic disregards any actual or potential historic Jewish connection to any of the land in the West Bank.

Further, with its latest directive, the E.U. instead dismisses ancient Jewish history as irrelevant, and alternately is implicitly accepting the totality of the P.A.’s assertion of sovereignty over all of “Palestine”. Meanwhile repeated Israeli governments have sacrificed Israeli territory in the pursuit of peace, only to receive rockets and relentless intransigence in return.

Unanswered by the P.A., is that if the 1967 borders are essential to peace for both the P.A. and the E.U., why then were these borders not acceptable in 1967 immediately prior to the Six Day War? Tracing this reasoning further back in history: why were the 1948 borders not acceptable for the creation of a Palestinian state? Legally and objectively, at both points in history – May 1948 and June 1967 – Israel was not “occupying” a square inch of territory in the “West Bank”.

The P.A.’s inability to address these simple yet challenging questions, and the resultant 65 years of bloodshed between Israel and the various Palestinian entities that have expressed vitriolic hatred toward the Jewish people, together raise alarming concern about the fundamental ideological underpinnings of the current and future Palestinian government.

Further, the P.A.’s silence in the face of legitimate objective inquiry exposes its radical agenda, reliance on historic revisionism and perpetual strategic hypocrisy. More than anything, this silence effectively legitimizes Israel’s construction activity, particularly in areas of ironclad historic prominence to Judaism.

At the Ancient Shiloh event, Naftali Bennett, a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition, made explicitly clear his response to the paradox above, stating:

“The world says that these ‘settlements’ are terrorizing the Palestinian people. I say that not building on this land is terrorism against the Jewish State.”

Naftali Bennett at the Shiloh event.
Naftali Bennett speaking at the Shiloh event.

Bennett’s new party won 12 seats in the 2013 national elections, and he is widely considered an up-and-coming political leader. With peace negotiations now underway, Bennett’s ideological ambition and rising popularity are worth bearing consideration in the context of Israel’s future.

In many respects, Bennett’s vision for Israel’s growth (into the West Bank), emerges from the perception in Israel that the Palestinian government is systemically and intractably divided, riven with venomous jihadi ideologies, and simply incapable of the intellectual maturity required to accept both Jews and the Jewish State on a secular, humanistic, civilizational basis.

That the P.A.’s anti-Semitic political positions are granted hearing in the highest global forums only entrenches Bennett’s belief that Israel must take matters firmly into its own hands, both now and for the foreseeable future.

The reality is that Israel has agreed to come to the negotiating table in 2013 without preconditions. That means: without the basic condition that Israel be accepted as a Jewish State. Is it really any wonder to the international community precisely why Israel continues to build in areas of vital historic importance?

None of this means that Israel has the right to build absolutely anywhere in the West Bank that it deems fit. Nearly all Israelis agree that sensible limits should be placed on construction in areas that will directly impact the ability to create a contiguous Palestinian state – indeed such limits are in Israel’s interest when they can lead to definable final status borders.

Yet as the construction at Ancient Shiloh demonstrates, Israel’s “settlements” are not necessarily unreasonable or baseless land grabs, but rather are often rooted in ancient, verified history. If only the rest of the world, particularly the E.U. and P.A., would stop to appreciate and construct that conclusion on their own.

About the Author
Robert David Onley is a lawyer and freelance writer from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He is the Co-Founder of the Young Diplomats of Canada, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community in the Ottawa Hub.