Letter From Israel
by Ran HaCohen
The United Jewish Communities of North America has recently decided to give its financial support also to Israeli settlers in the occupied territories (Ha'aretz, 14.6.02).
At first, out of warm Jewish solidarity, I got very worried. Persistent rumours, especially since September 11th, say that the US government is not very fond of using charity money to support illegal purposes these days. After all, the Israeli settlements are internationally regarded as illegal, breaching the IV Geneva Convention, article 49, which states rather clearly that "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies". Even the Israeli government is now deeply concerned that the International Criminal Court may convict settlers as war criminals. So I truly hope the UJC have good lawyers.
But later, edified by my own feelings of Jewish solidarity, I realised that the urge felt by Jews world-wide to support Israel in these difficult days is quite understandable. So I started thinking how Jews really could, and should, support Israel. Not by supporting Sharon's vision of eternal war, but by supporting us, the Israeli people, whose vision is coexistence side-by-side with the Palestinians in peace, security and prosperity.
Support the Settlers
The idea of supporting the settlers is not such a bad one. I mean: from a humanistic-universalistic point of view, of course it is the Palestinians who deserve our help, much more than the settlers. But since this seems unrealistic for many a Jewish donor ("your own poor come first", says the Talmud), supporting the settlers might be a good alternative. But let me explain how exactly.
A recent opinion poll (Ha'aretz, 6.6.2002) found out that 65% of the Jewish population in Israel supported dismantling the settlements. My devoted readers should not be surprised: this is a consistent and stable result, as all opinion polls show again and again.
Now you may think that the Israelis inside the Green Line support dismantling settlements, but those in the settlements oppose it. This sounds logical, but it is not true. Remember that by far not all settlers are ideologically motivated. Some moved to the occupied territories for promises of better life: fresh air, beautiful view, rural serenity. Many others, probably most of the settlers, were transferred to the occupied territories by the dull coercion of economy: while flats within Israel are extremely expensive, houses in the settlements are generously subsidised. Having to choose between an unaffordable small flat in Jerusalem and an almost-free spacious house in a nearby settlement, with a generous state mortgage, a generous state bonus, a generous reduction on income-tax as well as generously improved public services (education, health, infrastructure), many lower middle-class families opted for the latter. One can hardly blame them for that.
Settlers Cheated and Doubly Betrayed
In view of the Intifada, non-ideological settlers – probably a majority in most settlements, especially in the bigger ones – now find themselves both cheated and doubly betrayed.
Cheated, because they were promised high quality of life and now find themselves literally in a war zone, risking their lives, injured and killed almost daily. They are constantly targeted by Palestinian militants, who ever more often try to penetrate the settlements and kill them even in their own homes. Whether we like it or not, these are facts that even Sharon's murderous "Operation Defensive Shield" failed to change. Moreover: if, as is now planned, a fence is to cut off the occupied territories from Israel, the settlers will become even more of a target for Palestinian militants, who may not be able to enter Israel itself.
Betrayed once, because the State that urged them to move to the occupied territories does not even consider letting them leave. Well, of course they may leave – "it's a free country" – but they cannot. Whoever was wise enough to hire a flat, left as soon as the Intifada broke out; young couples moved back to their parents inside the Green Line; some settlements are half-empty; but the great majority of settlers, who own their house, cannot sell it for a reasonable price – no buyers – and are thus prisoners in their own homes.
Betrayed twice, because public opinion turned against the settlers as if they – and not the government that sent them and holds them hostage – were the ultimate source of evil. The rhinocerised nationalistic daily Ha'aretz attacks settlers on a daily basis (e.g. a recent article by its Editor-in-Chief), urging them to leave "for their own sake", as if people who somehow managed to buy a cheap housing unit in a settlement could simply leave it behind and buy another house somewhere else.
It's Not (Just) Sharon
Don't blame Sharon. A Prime Minister who openly says that as long as he is in power, evacuation of settlements will not even be discussed in cabinet, a retired General for whom human beings are just pawns, cannot be expected to act differently. Especially not after his "dovish" predecessors have done the same.
Shortly after the first Oslo Accord (1993), the 13 families of the tiny settlement Dugit in the Gaza Strip – nature-loving fishermen – locked their houses, started a sit-in demonstration in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and demanded an alternative strip of coast inside Israel. It's time for peace, they said, we don't want to be a bone in Gaza's throat. PM Rabin rejected their demand. Dugit is still there, largely expanded meanwhile on confiscated Palestinian land, defended by battalions of soldiers, with Palestinian militants attacking it on a daily basis.
Later on, Knesset Member Haggai Merom (Labour) prepared lists of West Bank settlers wishing to leave for fair compensation – 30 to 50% in some settlements, he said. Then-president Weizmann rejected their request to meet him; PM Peres rejected their demand too.
A couple of years later I happened to meet Shimon Peres. I asked him why. "It won't have mattered," he told me. "Even if a settlement of 5,000 had been left with only 500 settlers, we would still have to build the by-pass road leading to it".
Not convincing? – Very convincing. Peres could not even think of settlers in terms of human beings with rights and wishes. For Peres (or Barak, or Sharon), the settlements are there as an excuse for the by-pass roads, and the by-pass roads are there to divide and cantonise the Palestinian territory, destroy Palestinian contiguity and prevent the option of a viable Palestinian state. The settlers are merely pawns in this game, just like the soldiers sent to protect them by turning Palestinian life into hell.
So Here Is What You Can Do
Jews in America and world-wide should therefore use their money to support settlers who wish to leave the occupied territories and return to Israel. This should not even be a "political" issue: the settlers (and their children) are held hostage by the Israeli government, exposed to deadly violence. You do not have to be a dove to support people's right not to live in the middle of a battle-field (unless they want to). Sums and conditions can be negotiated, using as guidelines the compensations paid by Israel to the settlers evacuated from Sinai when it was returned to Egypt.
The advantages of such an initiative are numerous.
* On a human level, it respects the free and legitimate will of settlers who wish to leave.
* On a moral level, it does justice to innocent Israeli citizens who conformed to Israeli law and policy, moved to the occupied territories, and now feel abandoned, cheated and betrayed.
* On a national level, it respects the overwhelming majority in Israel that supports evacuation of settlements (without even harming the minority of settlement-supporters).
* On a regional level, it can show Arabs that Jews world-wide are supportive of peace, not of the disputed settlements. Empty settlements can then be sold to house Palestinian refugees.
* On an international level, it conforms to the international as well as American position that the settlements are illegal and form an obstacle to peace.
Now, dear United Jewish Communities of North America: you have collected $265 million in your recent "Israel Emergency Campaign". 65% of the Israelis support evacuating the settlements. Will you take 65% of the sum – $172 million – and offer it to settlers wishing to leave? Or will any other Jewish institution take up the glove? You'll find an overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians behind you, and you will enter History as the initiator of a quantum leap towards Peace in the Middle East.
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