By Ghassan Khatib – The West Bank
The recent settler violence in Hebron, which was described by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, as a pogrom, brought to the attention of Israelis and Palestinians the grave danger that settlements and settlers represent.
But the riots in Hebron were in fact different only in terms of the level of violence. Otherwise they were part of an orchestrated campaign of settler violence that has been in increasing evidence this past year. The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot reported 675 violent incidents by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, mainly against Palestinian citizens, but also against Israeli soldiers.
The large-scale and organized nature of these activities indicates that they are not spontaneous, scattered and individual initiatives but rather the result of a political position that aims at achieving political objectives.
This would not be the first time settlers and settlements are deliberate political pawns, whether for their own aims or those of Israel. Over the years, Israeli governments have used the settler presence in the occupied Palestinian territories at certain times in order to achieve specific political objectives.
Indeed, the settlement project was started as a political strategy with which to indicate Israel’s intention to hang on to certain parts of the West Bank. Later, particularly in the mid-1980s and under Likud governments, the settlement project became intentionally arbitrary, an indication that actually Israel intended to hold on to all the occupied West Bank. That’s when settlements expanded everywhere.
The recent negotiations and the news emanating about a solution that might differentiate between settlement blocs that Israel wants to annex at the expense of small and scattered settlements, seem to have provoked the increasingly powerful right-wing pro-settler groups in Israel. These groups want to put an enormous price tag on any retreat in the settlement process.
It is difficult to blame settlers for strongly opposing any intention by their government to evacuate settlements or even this single Palestinian house at a time when Israel is still encouraging settlement expansion elsewhere. The first step to dealing with settler aggression has to be a new, clear and decisive policy of ending the expansion of settlements generally. Such a message might help persuade all concerned parties, including settlers, that there is sincere determination in Israel to end this problem once and for all.
A continued Israeli settlement expansion policy will only encourage settler appetite for more land and more violence. And it must not be forgotten that most violence between the two sides has indeed been initiated by settlers, from the attempted assassinations of Palestinian mayors in the 1970s, the spate of stabbings in the 1980s to the massacre of 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron in 1994 by Baruch Goldstein.
This is, of course, in parallel to the systematic violence of the Israeli army, either against individuals, mostly civilians, or against property and its demolition of Palestinian houses.
Although violence of all kinds and from all parties should be condemned, especially when directed against civilians, it is hard to ignore certain differences. Jewish settler violence is undertaken under the protection of the Israeli army and by a group of people living illegally on land that belongs to the indigenous population. Palestinian violence, no matter how egregious, is undertaken by a people under occupation and whose land and lives are under daily threat.
The presence and expansion of settlements together with the activities of settlers, violent and aggressive as they are, have shown that the settlement phenomenon is the biggest and most dangerous threat to any potential peace and co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis. Ending the expansion of settlements and eventually evacuating the occupied territories of settlers in order to allow for an independent Palestinian state to emerge are prerequisites for a peaceful solution.
-Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (Originally published in Bitterlemons.org, December 15, 2008)