An increasing number of settlers are opting to share sovereignty rather than give up their homes

The pressures on Israel of the 43-year occupation are causing some interesting cracks. Perhaps the most unexpected, though not entirely surprising, is a new movement of settlers that totally challenges existing prejudices.

Fed up with being blamed, and fearful of their homes and way of life being sacrificed, some are taking a fresh look at the situation and reaching conclusions that would be unthinkable to the Zionist left. Though their motives are mixed, much of what they say seems sincere, and some of it brings a lump to the throat.

It started in late 2009, when a few members of some settlements started visiting Palestinian neighbours, wanting to prove to “Tel Aviv” that they are not an alien cancer in Palestinian territory fit only to be surgically removed. But the conversations they had seemed to have changed their thinking quite profoundly.

Ha’aretz reporter said: “It was hard to remain altogether cynical when Rabbi Menachem Froman of Tekoa said: “I am ashamed,” after the hosts told how the poor-quality road they had paved in the center of their village had been plowed under by the Civil Administration, and said they were not permitted to build a minaret atop their small mosque”. He describes the dialogue as “religious at its root but political in its evolution … navigating through unmapped terrain. … They want to defer talk of a political solution to a later stage. But the direction is clear: a binational state, which Eliaz Cohen openly preaches: “My idea is one big wide open space,” he says. “If I were Barack Obama, I would take the two-state idea off the table and start to sew together the Israel-Palestine geopolitical space; I would start to create a confederation, with equal rights for all.”  Amrussi prefers a binational state over the other options, but can also envision a Palestinian state in which the settlers will remain as citizens bearing equal rights.

The poet Eliaz Cohen and journalist Emily Amrussi are already nationally known voices of the established settlement movement and have served on its Yesha Council.

Amrussi recalls her first meeting in the home of the village elder: “I felt I was going into a place from which I would come out different. I knew about the situation before, but it’s different when it hits you in the face.” These meetings have now led to a movement, named either Yerushalom or Eretz Shalom. In addition to talking, listening, soul-searching and dealing with “a storm of emotions”, some have joined local villagers in protests against the Wall. One leading member, Nahum Pachnik, says: “Peace is not reached through separation, but rather through acquaintanceship. Separation is an act of despair. What do we need a fence for, if we can do things together? You don’t need a fence for peace, it will only lead to war.”

They are also practicing small acts of reconciliation: offering a lift to a stranger on the road and receiving s bunch of grapes for thanks; helping to get planning permission for the minaret, exchanging gifts, organising joint football games for the kids. One of the Palestinian community talking with Yerushalom is Bassam, whose 10-year old daughter was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet. He says “If I can accept this idea of meeting with settlers, I think the majority of Palestinians can accept it. … Nachum came to me and said he wanted to talk, as human beings. It is a big step.”

Quite a few people in the movement recall their early days before divisions hardened. Pachnik recalls that Rabbi Levinger, who is the father of the settlement movement and still represents the hawkish faction, would at first travel only in Palestinian taxis, explaining that ‘we have to live with them.’ All of this ended very quickly. Because we were the occupier and they were the occupied, and because they really did not have rights, an intifada developed.”*

At the first meeting, “the settlers looked terrified, by the site, by their mere presence in “Palestinian” territory”. Both groups tried to talk at the hotel entrance, but then it became easier for the settlers to make small talk among themselves. But their kids in the yard found a ball, and “without language they managed to play, to cooperate. broke the ice. Emily Amrussi recalled that at the start it was the first time she’d met Palestinians “not as service providers”.

The movement musters a few hundred so far, but has received blessings and no major objections, even from extreme and violent settlers  -  who no doubt see it as a chance to proclaim that they are on the side of the angels. They are aware they could be providing a fig leaf for people “pulling tgriggers or burning down mosques” but know that one human gesture from them counts for ten such from the Left. “I say that it is okay, let them hitch a ride on our wagon. What’s important is that a real process happen – the motive is less important.”. And Rabbi Froman says “you have to include the forces of evil” otherwise you are just being egocentric.

The settlers are not, of course, monolithic. The majority of the later settlements are not ideological, simply the pampered recipients of huge government subsidies and perks (though the Yerushalom movement is led by second generation “originals”). And doubtless those not completely hardened and blinkered are more aware than many “mainland” Israelis of the realities of Palestinian life next door. Another reporter quotes a settler journal slamming the checkpoints and curfews, as well as a prominent settler educator saying that the military regime’s ongoing wrongs are “like Sabra and Shatila multiplied by a million,” in reference to the 1982 massacre of Palestinians on Israel’s watch in Lebanon.

And there are not many on either Israel’s left or right who would say this: “I looked around and saw a stretch of empty hills and I thought, wait a minute, there is room here for everyone so why are we fighting and spilling each other’s blood over the land? There is space on the land, but the question is whether there is room in our hearts” (Pachnik) or this: “Just as I have a right of return to Kfar Etzion, there’s no reason that Palestinians from Nablus shouldn’t have a right of return to Jaffa.” (Cohen).

The conclusion for One Democracy is that here are half a million people (and maybe their families and friends in Israel), who don’t automatically fit the Left’s assertion that the Jewish State is the most sacred possession of 99.99% of Israelis. Little wonder that when  members of the group sought a stamp of approval from the left, in the persons of Amos Oz and A B Yehoshua, both responded by saying they should support two states for two people.

I see the Palestinian at the roadblock, and say to myself: ‘Again he’s standing here in the sun? He was here yesterday and he was here the day before that. Why don’t they let him pass through?’ 

*In his book One Country Ali Abunimah also recalls how in the first 20 or so years after the ‘67 war Israelis would drive out to West Bank towns at the weekend to shop in the markets and stop for lunch in Arab towns.

This post has included material transposed loosely from three articles, links below:



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