SINJIL, West Bank – The Israeli elections scheduled for March 17 should constitute a triumph, a celebration of democracy and a proud reminder that the nation in which Arab citizens have the most meaningful vote is, yes, Israel.
Yet Israeli settlements here on the West Bank mar the elections, and the future of the country itself. The 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank – not even counting those in Arab East Jerusalem – impede any Middle East peace and stain Israel’s image.
But let’s be clear: The reason to oppose settlements is not just that they are bad for Israel and America but also that this nibbling of Arab land is just plain wrong. It’s a land grab. The result is a “brutal occupation force,” in the words of the late Avraham Shalom, a former chief of the Israeli internal security force, Shin Bet.
Most Israeli settlers are not violent. But plenty are – even stoning U.S. consular officials early this year – and they mostly get away with it because settlements are an arm of an expansive Israeli policy. The larger problem is not violent settlers but the occupation.
“We planted 5,000 trees last year,” Mahmood Ahmed, a Palestinian farmer near Sinjil, told me. “Settlers cut them all down with shears or uprooted them.”
Israel has enormous security challenges, but it’s hard to see the threat posed by 69-year-old Abed al-Majeed, who has sent all 12 of his children to university. He told me that he used to have 300 sheep grazing on family land in Qusra but that nearby settlers often attack him when he is on his own land; he rolled up his pant leg to show a scar where, he said, a settler shot him in 2013. Now he is down to 100 sheep.
“I can’t graze my sheep on my own land,” he said. “If I go there, settlers will beat me.”
Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, accompanied me here and said that the allegations are fully credible. Sometimes Palestinians exaggerate numbers, she said, but the larger pattern is undeniable: “the expulsion of Palestinians from wide areas of their agricultural land in the West Bank.”
Elsewhere, I saw graffiti that said “Death to Arabs” in Hebrew, heard Palestinians say that their olive trees had been poisoned or their tires slashed, and talked to an Arab family whose house was firebombed in the middle of the night, leaving the children traumatized.
The violence, of course, cuts both ways, and some Israeli settlers have been murdered by Palestinians. I just as easily could have talked to settler children traumatized by Palestinian violence. But that’s the point: As long as Israel maintains these settlements, illegal in the eyes of most of the world, both sides will suffer.
To its credit, Israel sometimes lets democratic institutions work for Palestinians. In the southern West Bank, I met farmers who, with the help of a watchdog group, Rabbis for Human Rights, used Israeli courts to regain some land after being blocked by settlers. But they pointed wistfully at an olive grove that they are not allowed to enter because it is next to an outpost of a Jewish settlement.
They haven’t been able to set foot in the orchard for years, but I, as an outsider, was able to walk right into it. A settler confronted me, declined to be interviewed and disappeared again – but the Palestinians who planted the trees cannot harvest their own olives.
A unit of Israeli soldiers soon showed up to make sure there was no trouble. They were respectful, but, if they were really there to administer the law, they would dismantle the settlement outpost, which is illegal under Israeli as well as international law.
Kerem Navot, an Israeli civil society organization, has documented “the wholesale takeover of agricultural lands” by Israeli settlers. It notes that this takeover is backed by the Israeli government “despite the blatant illegality of much of the activity, even in terms of Israeli law.”
There are, of course, far worse human rights abuses in the Middle East; indeed, Israeli journalists, lawyers, historians and aid groups are often exquisitely fair to Palestinians. Yet the occupation is particularly offensive to me because it is conducted by the U.S. ally, underwritten with our tax dollars, supported by tax-deductible contributions to settlement groups and carried out by U.S. bulldozers and weaponry, and presided over by a prime minister who is scheduled to speak to Congress next week.
At a time when Saudi Arabia is flogging dissidents, Egypt is sentencing them to death and Syria is bombing them, Israel should stand as a model. Unfortunately, it squanders political capital and antagonizes even its friends with its naked land grab in the West Bank. That’s something that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might discuss in his address to Congress.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or at Twitter.com/NickKristof.