Looking for ways to improve my English when I first arrived in the US, I chanced upon a book about strong and weak words. It now strikes me how the reporting and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is replete with weak words.
What the book didn’t say is that weak words, when repeated incessantly by powerful propaganda machines, become strong masks for detrimental policies and deeds. One such word is “settlement,” by Israeli Jews on Palestinian land.
The word “settlement” sounds innocuous, if not outright positive. Other than its legal or political meaning of an agreement, it could indicate a village, a collection of dwellings and such.
Even when it refers to a “colony,” the word has lost its edge after more than 50 years in the post-colonial era. And in the country that made the Israeli-Jewish settlements possible, the US, the word “colony” evokes favorably the early settlement history in the white imagination.
But an Israeli-Jewish settlement is hardly innocuous. It contains an overload of myth and religion, “legal chicanery” (in the words of Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh), hilltops, violence, strategic considerations, subsidies (including American loan guarantees), state-of-the-art infrastructure, ongoing expansion, a wall to enclose the clusters of settlements and powerful political constituencies. At least for Israel and Jewish settlers.
For the Palestinians, it spells marginality, exclusion, insecurity, prisons, house demolition and checkpoints that take lightly their time and dignity. It signifies the uprooting of tens of thousands of fruit trees, ever-present fear, cutting off farmers from their land and daily shrinking of space for living.
The settlement commences in the mind, which denies the history of the people in the land before and after the Jews, including 1,500 years of continual Arab presence. The West Bank — the 22 percent of historic Palestine — in the Zionist version of history is Judea and Samaria.
Forget “Palestine,” the name of the place from time immemorial.
A site then must be found. That could be anywhere; it doesn’t have to be near a putative past Jewish settlement.
A hilltop is a location of choice, and where the land is flat, such as in the Jordan Valley, it is declared “a closed military area.” From the hilltop, the Jewish eye beholds only other
Jewish settlements; to see an Arab village, it must turn its gaze downward.
Power is grafted onto topography.
How to take away the land? You grab it, and then justify it with a legal concoctions writ by the state of Israel itself — you can even distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” settlements. At the same time, bring in a bunch of trailers and park them on the site; follow that by speedily building a collection of houses like a military garrison, but with white limestone and red-tiled roofs and then suppress any thought of a Biblical landscape.
The settlement project is a state enterprise. A settlement needs to be linked by water and electricity, by roads and Wi-Fi. That is why to make the project somewhat economical more settlements are called for.
A settlement begets another settlement. The settlements need roads. Now, a modern multi-lane highway network guts the ancient hills, crisscrosses the West Bank in four
directions and “bypasses” (a weak word for encircle) Palestinian cities and towns.
If the settlements were biological entities, we would speak of malevolent growth.
Only Jews are permitted to settle in the settlement and travel on the highways, even if they have just arrived from New York. The Palestinians who are Israeli citizens are not allowed — the West Bank Palestinians are beyond the pale.
That is why they must be called Israeli-Jewish settlements, not just Israeli settlements. The settlers can be religious, some are fanatical (there are secular fanatics too), but many come for the pastoral life (it is interesting that Jews in the US are generally urbanites, when that country has enormous areas of rural landscape).
The settlers benefit from subsidized housing, water, energy and other services. They don’t give much thought to Palestinians.
The number of settlers now exceeds half a million in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, which in the Israeli mind does not belong in the West Bank. Now if Israel was short of space and wanted to relocate such a number of people, it could do this in a very small strip of land instead of the 3,000-odd square kilometers effectively controlled by the settlements, or about 10 times the area of Gaza with its 1.5 million inhabitants.
But Israel has other motives — a takeover of as much land as possible from Palestinian territory and the control of all.
A half million privileged, dedicated settlers are a potent political force, with backing in the army and among the Jewish population in general. Even if a large countervailing current existed in Israeli politics that opposed the settlement enterprise, the settlers would be hard to dislodge, considering the ideological, political and material “sunk” investment.
If the land was without a people, as early Zionists pictured Palestine, for a people without a land, we could stop here. But the country has, and always had, “owners” that Israel refuses to recognize.
The Zionist scheme of creating a Jewish state in Palestine always had a built-in logic for expulsion of the Palestinians from the country. The Zionists dubbed it “transfer” (a weak word for expulsion, or ethnic cleansing).
Today, expulsion may be the “wordless wish” lurking behind the settlements, but it may not be possible, considering that the number of Palestinians nearly equals that of Jews between the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.
Taking this reality into account, and to protect settlers and augment the settlements, Israel has set up a system of control for the Palestinians. The settlements themselves, and the roads and the wall that winds through the West Bank, are but the physically visible component of this system.
They are spread and clustered throughout the West Bank. In the pre-state period, the Jewish settlements were also exclusive and often congruent; in the West Bank, they also fragment, breaking up the contiguity of the Palestinian map.
A system of South-Africa-like bantustans is thus established, separate and unequal.
Physical control cannot do the job alone. Israel buttresses it with institutional measures, grounded in an unlimited, no-holds-barred conception of security.
The Israeli army enters any Palestinian town or city or village any time, to arrest whomever are its collaborators (themselves a pathetic offspring of the system of control) suspected of transgression of security. It targets people for assassination (Israel prides itself on having no capital punishment, but executes Palestinians without trial).
The Israeli military detains (a weak word for imprisonment without trial) for long periods. Palestinian prisoners have waged hunger strikes and one inmate, Arafat Jaradat, has just perished after a protracted fast.
The Palestinian roads are intercepted by checkpoints set up at will; some are more extensive than others and some resemble borders, like the one marking the exit from Ramallah to Jerusalem.
Human rights organizations once counted more than 600 such barriers to movement, manned by gung-ho, rude young soldiers. These checkpoints also enable Israel to impose closures, local and total, lasting hours to days and weeks.
Palestinian time is not equal to Jewish time.
In short, a settlement means a rich past and lively present and future for the Israeli Jews, whereas for the Palestinians, it means an erasure of their history, an oppressive present and a miserable future.
This state of affairs is abetted by the US. That country changed its depiction view of the settlements from the strong “illegal” to the weak, “obstacles to peace.” President Barack Obama, “the strongest man on earth,” is scheduled to be in Tel Aviv and Ramallah in March.
We do not know what he has up his sleeve, although the record invites skepticism. Obama had originally asked Israel to stop expanding the settlements and backed the establishment of a Palestinian state, but subsequently dropped the issue for political expediency.
Yet there is so much at stake in a region undergoing massive and unpredictable political shifts and the US needs to start taking the wishes of the people in the region seriously.
The United Nations General Assembly has given the US an opening by voting Palestine as a non-member state, rendering Israeli Jewish settlements illegal on this state’s territory. Britain had promised the Palestinians in 1939 a state of their own within 10 years (on the heels of defeating their revolt against its own occupation).
Perhaps Obama can bring along the UK’s David Cameron to give him a hand in lifting those obdurate settlements.
Sharif S. Elmusa is a Palestinian poet and professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. He is currently a fellow at the MacMillan Center at Yale University.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.