Lords of the Land – Debating the Impact of the Settlements
Talia Sasson, former head of the Special Tasks Division in the State Attorney's Office, and Suhail Khalilieh, head of the Applied Research Institute's Monitoring Settlements Unit in Jerusalem, joined Haaretz chief political columnist and author Akiva Eldar to discuss the implications of Israel's settlement policy for the West Bank, Gaza and Israel. The November 13, 2007 event, organized jointly with the Yakar Center for Social Concern, marked the English publication of Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 by Eldar and Prof. Idith Zertal. (See Book Review, p.93) The discussion was moderated by Yakar director and PIJ Editorial Board member Benjamin Pogrund.
Eldar began with a question: "Are the settlements making Israel more Jewish?" His answer, unequivocally, was no. "The settlements," he said, "are the greatest threat to Zionism. I would even say they are post-Zionist." He explained how the settlement project contradicts the ideals of a Jewish, democratic, just and peaceful state:
Given the demographics of the occupied territories, Israel is already a "bi-national state" that has lost its Jewish character, Eldar said. The "clear discrimination between Arabs and Jews" in the West Bank, specifically with reference to resource distribution, belies Israel's just and democratic nature. Additionally, the military divisions in the West Bank protect settlers, not the state. This security apparatus for West Bank settlements cost $6.5 billion between 1997 and 2005, and may have caused Israel's poor showing in the summer 2006 war in Lebanon.
Moreover, the settler movement has failed to create an extensive Jewish presence in the West Bank. The settlers comprise only 12% of the West Bank's population and 4.5% of Israel's. Despite their limited, though expanding, numbers, settlers remain an impediment to peace. The separation wall, road blocks and continued occupation disrupt the possibility for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state.
"Is it still possible to save the Zionist dream?" Eldar asked. He believed it was. Following the Annapolis conference, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could freeze settlements and begin moving Israel down the path to a two-state solution.
Sasson reaffirmed her recommendation to the Sharon government in her 2005 "Outposts Report": Outposts are illegal; "if you cannot build legally, don't build at all." She added that Israel's Supreme Court has also declared the occupation of the West Bank temporary until an agreement with the Palestinian people is reached, thus implicitly recognizing her belief that Israel has no legal sovereignty in the West Bank. Despite this, Israel has reneged on its agreement with the Untied States to evacuate all outposts and not to build beyond the construction lines of the settlements.
Khalilieh spoke of the impact of settlements on the Palestinian population, both in Gaza and the West Bank. "Settlements are in violation of international law," he declared. "This is indisputable fact." Israel's settlement program, instituted in 1967, aims to colonize the West Bank, he said, and to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state. He maintained that Israel's discriminatory building policies replicate those of apartheid South Africa. "Settlements are allowed to build freely," he said, "While Palestinians cannot even cope with the growth of their own population."
According to the Applied Research Institute's satellite surveys, there are 199 settlements in the West Bank, inhabiting 3.3% of the land, alongside 220 outposts. With East Jerusalem included, 500,000 settlers reside in the Palestinian territories. "Without the settlers," said Khalilieh, "the Israeli army would just be an occupation."
Similarly, the Gaza disengagement barely dented Israel's control over the Strip, according to Khalilieh. An expanded buffer zone along the border allows Israel to maintain control over 24% of the land, compared to 37% when Israel formally occupied Gaza.
The reality in Gaza, combined with the various mechanisms of control in the West Bank, including road blocks, checkpoints, tunnels, terminals and gates, all signify Israel's desire to prevent a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, Khalilieh argued. "Palestinians ask for 22% of the British mandate," he said. "This is much less than the 45% that was originally promised us."
The panel presentations were followed by a lively Q&A session, excerpted here:

The right of the Jewish people to closely settle the land is established in the Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations. Also, the Geneva Conventions say that the relationship of occupier and occupied can only be between two high [state] contracting parties.

Eldar: … According to international law and official Israeli policy that accepted [United Nations Security Council Resolution] 242, Israel has to withdraw to the 1967 borders with minor modifications. … [If you want to be] democratic and Jewish, let's start [by] asking: Why didn't the Likud governments annex the territories… and then allow the Palestinians to vote?

I think that a lot of people in this room are concerned about terrorism. Hamas is killing Fateh, Fateh is killing Hamas, and when they don't get to kill each other, they try to kill Jews. If Palestinians got the land that they want … would they shell Tel Aviv and Haifa?

Khalilieh: … In 2002 or 2003, the Israeli army … got information that [a wanted Hamas member] was meeting his family secretly in one of Gaza's refugee camps, which are some of the most densely populated areas in the world. So the Israeli army dropped a one-metric-ton bomb on that neighborhood and killed [him] and maybe 16 others with him. After that the spokesman of the Israeli army said that "we did not intend to kill any civilians." What you say is terrorism, I say we are resisting an occupation.

Hamas is shelling Sderot. Do you agree with that?

Khalilieh: Did you ever consider the Israeli army shelling refugee camps in Gaza?

Why is the Israeli government scared of the settlers?

Eldar: This government, as well as previous governments, is using settlements as a bargaining chip. According to the polls - besides the people who live in areas that might be annexed to Israel in a swap with Palestinians - there are 80,000 people who live on the other side of the wall, 60% of [whom] want to get back to Israel. This leaves 40,000 people in about 10,000 households. Olmert is keeping them as a bargaining chip. … We dealt with Gush Katif [in Gaza]. We could deal with the West Bank.

Sasson: I do not agree with you that this is the same threat as Gush Katif. I think many politicians are quite afraid of the violent settlers and afraid of dealing with the problems. I don't think that the hard core in the West Bank are similar to Gush Katif.

Talia Sasson, why did Ariel Sharon appoint you? Here is the man who is the self-proclaimed father of the settlements. Illegal outposts were a hot issue at the time, yet he appoints you to investigate them and do a report. Why?

Sasson: I never asked him this question… But I can assume why. One reason was that he had to explain to the Americans why he didn't fulfill the Israeli commitments to evacuate the outposts. … The other reason was entirely different. I think Mr. Sharon thought the settlers and all the governmental organizations that helped them caused a lot of damage to Israel and, therefore, he thought that it must be stopped. But when he wanted to stop it, he found out that he couldn't. He wanted to show the settlers that he meant business by appointing somebody who [would] write a report revealing the real truth about what's going on.

Why have road blocks within the West Bank not been removed to improve the economic situation there?

Khalilieh: The Israelis want to keep us on a short leash. They want to keep controlling the Palestinian movement throughout the territories. … The network of bypass roads works hand-in-hand with the settlements. The Israelis have made another network of roads just for the Palestinians. If you want to talk about racism, they call the network of Israeli bypass roads the "sterile network," meaning there are no Palestinians.

Do you believe the rabbinical community will sanction violence if settlements are ordered cleared in the West Bank?
Eldar: Since the disengagement in Gaza there's been a tremendous crisis between rabbis and the settler communities. The message coming from the rabbis was that if you pray hard enough it will not happen. Trust us and trust God. Settlers feel they were betrayed by the rabbis and the political establishment.

[For Suhail Khalilieh] What would you like Israelis to know about you as a Palestinian and about Palestinians in general?

Khalilieh: I would expect you to know more about the human side of Palestinians. We are not all what you see on TV. We are not all with masks and guns trying to shoot and kill people. We've been living long years under oppression that have not been easy for us. Children have not been out of their neighborhoods in years. Many in the younger generation have not even seen Jerusalem… We do not have the luxuries of even the poorest Israeli neighborhoods. I was asked if my children knew any Jewish children: The only Jewish people we see are the Israeli army and settlers. …We want to relate to other people. Many people who come from abroad relate to us and see what we go through… If you tried to communicate with Palestinians, they would communicate back.

Report compiled and written by Geoffrey Macdonald, PIJ contributing writer and editorial intern. For a more detailed report, please go to