Two things made me consider the nature of settlements and settlers recently. The first was the entry of 50 Israelis into the Palestinian, Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan. The second was a status on Facebook yesterday saying;
I oppose Hamas and antisemitism as much as the next man, but if you’re my ‘friend’ and you support settlement construction, please delete me now. We are not, in any sense, on the same side.
These two utterly unrelated events, one making headline news and another merely a personal comment on my Facebook feed got me thinking about the 1967 borders and how irrelevant it is even to talk about them. I think that many of us live in a place where we are (lazily) using the phrase “1967 borders” to talk about the borders that would exist in an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government in the future, rather than those that existed in the past.
If Israel were really to return to the 1967 borders we’d see Jerusalem cut completely in half, again, by barbed wire, pillboxes and machine guns. It would see Jews once again denied the right to pray at the Kotel and the battlements of the Old City would once again play host to real soldiers. If Israel really returned to the 1967 borders then the separation barrier that some people spend a great deal of time complaining about would be nothing compared to hardship caused to people in neighbourhoods arbitrarily cut in half by an artificial line that has no rhyme or reason to it.
When it comes to settlement and settlement construction the same logic applies. Jerusalem has been annexed by the state of Israel and roughly 200,000 “settlers” live there. But do people really think of Jewish Jerusalemites when referring to settlers?
I don’t think so…Except when it comes to Silwan.
For example there’s a difference between Jews who move into the neighbourhood of say French Hill and those who move into Silwan. So even in Jerusalem people can be considered as settlers or non settlers depending on which area of beyond the green line Jerusalem they’re moving to. If I was to move to French Hill tomorrow I wouldn’t need security to help me do it and there would be no complaints from the Palestinian Authority for me doing so. The opposite would be the case were I moving to Silwan, the Mufti of Jerusalem called the movement of Jews into Silwan “a criminal act”. Moving to Silwan would also say a great deal more about my personal politics than a move to French Hill.
The reason for this (though no doubt many would deny it) is that French Hill already has a great many Jews living there whereas Silwan is predominantly Arab. So is it possible that if an area has already been made demographically Jewish by previous settlers I cease to be a settler if I move there?
At a time when the head of the peace camp in Israel, Isaac Herzog, says that he views the settlements of the Gush Etzion as being as much a part of Israel as Tel Aviv the very definitions that people use tend not to have the meaning they wish them to have. It’s worth recognizing this and behaving accordingly.
I think that what people really object to isn’t the settlers but settlement as a policy. When Bibi Netanyahu recently announced the annexation of 1,000 acres of land in the area of Gush Etzion his statement was greeted with utter disappointment from a range of different quarters. Supporters of the Prime Minister were quick to argue that this annexation changed nothing on the ground. But that was the exact reason that it was such a self defeating action. The Palestinians complained, the world backed them up and the European and US public became that little bit more convinced that Israel really is the bad guy of the Middle East (yes in spite of Hamas and IS doing their murderous thing) all to gain…nothing. Had he built there anyway or used the land in an expansion of existing settlements there probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the amount of condemnation. In fact I doubt anyone would even have noticed.
So what is a settler?
I would argue that a settler has ceased to be about where in Israel you’re moving to so much as your personal reasons for moving there. If you’re moving to Silwan with the goal of turning your very home and family into an obstacle to a peace deal between Israel and the PA then you’re a settler. If you’re moving to French Hill because you like the apartment…you’re not. This is a very abstract, messy way of looking at settlers but then things in the Middle East have been abstract for quite some time.
In the 2013 general election over 13% of West Bank settlers (not including Jerusalemites) voted for parties ranging from Yesh Atid leftwards. Meaning that they were actively voting for parties with a platform of negotiating away their own homes. No longer can people assume that they know where a settler stands politically from their address.
To argue, as my friend on Facebook has, that black and white expansion of settlements is wrong is to ignore that settlements can be neighbourhoods that are utterly indistinguishable from any other in Jerusalem. It’s also to ignore that many people living in those neighbourhoods want a peace deal with Palestinians too. What I think he was really referring to is settlement of Jews in a strategic way to ensure continued occupation of Palestinians by Israelis with the express intention of killing any opportunity for a Palestinian state to exist.
In this sense who a settler actually is becomes irrelevant next to what policy is held by the government and every government left or right has supported settlement for decades in the past. It’s time to accept that settlement in and of itself is irrelevant next to the strategy behind settlement and the impact it has on a potential peace deal.