The illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank represent the central obstacle to peace in the decades-long Middle East conflict. While the US-Israel relationship in Washington has been a sacred cow for decades and Barack Obama also pursued a disastrous Israel policy from a peace perspective, Donald Trump is by far the best thing that could have happened to the right-wing hawks of the Netanyahu government. In addition to a multitude of truly historic, but rather symbolic gifts (embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of the Golan Heights, etc.), it is above all Trump’s goodwill towards settlement construction that will cause lasting damage: under Trump, the number of newly built houses per year has increased by 25 percent compared to Obama, the number of newly planned houses has even tripled.
Israel’s settlements under international law in the Occupied Palestinian territories, with a population of around 700,000, are generally regarded as the greatest obstacle to achieving a two-state solution to the Palestine – Israel conflict-an assessment that I fully share, as decades of settlement construction have made a viable state structure of Palestine practically impossible. In the West Bank, dismembered Palestinian islands float on a sea of Israeli territory: there is simply no longer any coherent territory on which a Palestinian state could be founded. Even if necromancers in Germany, Israel, the EU, the USA and basically everywhere, in NGOs and the peace movement, from left to right, like to tell us the opposite: the two-state solution is dead. And the main reason is the Daily expanding settlements in the occupied territories.
In the Six-Day War of 1967, the Israeli army captured the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, as well as East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. Israel quickly began to establish settlements in all occupied territories. In the course of the Israeli-Egyptian peace of 1979, Israel evacuated the settlements on Sinai and withdrew from Egypt. In 2005, the few settlements in Gaza with their approximately 9,000 inhabitants were also evacuated – and in return, the largest open-air prison in the world was set up on an area the size of my adopted home city of Dresden, including periodically recurring bombings of the civilian population of Gaza. All other areas – east Jerusalem, West Bank, Golan-remain occupied and settled; in the international law of war: “occupied”.
Article 49 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions States in this context: “the occupying power shall not deport or resettle parts of its own civilian population to the territory it occupies.”
Under this article 49, the International Court of Justice classified the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian territories as illegal under international law, as did the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly in a number of resolutions. To make it clear: every Israeli settlement in the occupied territories is a war crime, every single house is in violation of international law and therefore illegal. Basically, the whole world sees this as well – of course, except for Israel and the USA as Israel’s Patron.
The number of settlers in the 134 official settlements in the West Bank is anno 2020 463.353. In addition, there are about 218,000 Israelis in twelve settlements in and around East Jerusalem. Some of the settlements are inhabited by only a few hundred people, but even under Israeli conditions there are several medium-sized cities such as the largest settlement, the ultra-Orthodox Modiʿin Illit, with over 73,000 inhabitants. To the official settlements comes an unknown number (probably some ten thousand) of settlers living in one of the 121 so – called “Outposts” - small, mostly agricultural communities, often only a few houses, which are officially illegal even under Israeli law and yet are tolerated and sometimes openly supported.
Most of the official new settlements in the West Bank took place in the 1970s (43 new settlements) and 1980s (66 new ones). In the 1990s, there were “only” twelve and in the new Millennium, only two start-UPS. In order to take the Wind out of the sails of international pressure, there is officially a Moratorium on new settlements, which, however, is permanently undermined by clumsy semantics alone: by means of these same Outposts. Since 2012 alone, 32 Outposts have been re-established, which, as I said, are illegal even under Israeli law, half of them as of 2017 under US President Trump, as revealed by a report of the Israeli Peace NGO Peace Now from the summer of 2019. On-site investigations by the Israeli Haaretz revealed that local and state authorities are partly “directly involved” in the start-ups and “de facto provide protection"to the Outposts. The creation of new Outposts is even “often financed by public funds,” according to the Peace Now study. The “Netanyahu government, for its part, encourages the construction” of new Outposts. The explosive thing about the report was that it became the Netanyahu government’s policy to “legalize” these illegal settlements in retrospect, " far from public attention.” 15 Outposts have already been transferred to” independent settlements or ‘neighborhoods’ of existing settlements”,” at least 35 more Outposts are in this legalization process " – the Moratorium on the establishment of new settlements is a Farce and the blatant deception of the Israeli and global public by the Netanyahu government.
In total, around 700,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank that violate international law. Latest figures from a report by Peace Now published in March show that settlement building activity has exploded under the extremely Netanyahu-friendly Trump administration-the number of new homes built each year in the settlements averaged 2,267 new homes in the three years under Trump, 25 percent higher on average than in the Obama Administration. The number of newly planned houses has even tripled under Trump.
Who lives in the settlements?
When I lived in Nablus in the West Bank and wanted to travel from Palestine to Israel, I first took a large taxi to the border town of Qalqiliya and had the driver throw me out at the roundabout half a Kilometer from the town. From there I hitchhiked across the border crossing a few hundred meters away – mostly in the cars of Israeli settlers from the occupied West Bank. Obviously “European” written on my forehead, in most cases I did not even have to show my passport and we were simply waved through at the heavily guarded border. The easiest and fastest way across-unlike the many Palestinian commuters from large parts of the West Bank who have to cross the Qalqiliya crossing every day by foot to work on plantations or construction sites in the Israeli border region on the basis of their monthly work permits. They usually spend several hours a day at the border, going through harassment and endless procedures. The times I stood in line with you, as a European with my West Bank Visa stuck in my passport, were met with even more contempt and condescension by the Israeli border guards than by the Palestinian workers themselves.
The settlers I met in this way while hitchhiking were mostly very sympathetic, open and helpful. Pleasant conversations often developed – although the views of the obviously left-wing foreigner on their “living situation” could be guessed, both sides tacitly insisted on leaving politics out of the question for once during these brief encounters. Also on the country roads within the West Bank, I was often taken by nice young – and mostly stoned – settlers in the car; as a German everything was no Problem. Other times at the big Ariel roundabout, waiting for our ride to Nablus, we were accosted by young settlers and snipped out of the car with tilts. Once I walked with my girlfriend at night along a country road, a black SUV stopped, four half-strong settlers got out. We were bullied, harassed and harassed, even sexually, their firearms stuck demonstratively and openly visible in the belt. Personally, I have had very mixed experiences with The Settlers of the West Bank.
Contrary to common clichés, the population in the settlements is by no means an ideologically monolithic group, or even an activist movement, but heterogeneous and endowed with a wide variety of Backgrounds and intentions – although the tendency of the people in the settlements is undoubtedly more conservative than those in the Liberal Mediterranean metropolises such as Tel Aviv or Haifa. For ideological reasons, only about a third of them move to the settlements in the West Bank – or to Judea and Samaria, as the official government language says, referring to the Old Testament terms for the present-day Palestinian territories south of Jerusalem (Judea) and north of it (Samaria). These mostly Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox settlers can also be further divided into subgroups by various degrees: the religious-ideological Zionists, who represent the largest subgroup here and regard the settlement of Palestine as their divine duty, understand their activist approach to the creation of a strong Israel as an accelerating factor for the coming of the Messiah and thus for the creation of God’s Kingdom on Earth. The anti-Zionist (Ultra -) Orthodox, on the other hand, reject the state of Israel in its entirety as a blasphemous entity, since only the Messiah himself can lead the Jewish Diaspora to freedom.
In the last five or ten years, a completely different Trend, a real Boom, has become apparent: more and more young, secular families are moving into the settlements, as Haaretz excellently documents. These mostly non-political, ideology-free and areligious Millenials see their move to the West Bank as neither fulfilling a biblical duty, nor do they see themselves as the human spearhead of the expansionist policies of the Netanyahu government-only the high quality of life in the settlements is decisive for them, good education, infrastructure and closeness to nature. If you can buy a mediocre three – room apartment in Tel Aviv for the same price or your own house with five rooms, a large garden and a Pool in the settlement of Karnei Shomron-the latter will quickly get over the Label of being branded “settlers” by the Liberal girlfriends in Tel Aviv.
Settlements as an alimented Lifestyle
An essential Pull factor, intended by the government just as much, to move from Israel to the settlements in the West Bank is due to economic hardship. For example, many poorer Israelis are drawn from the Mediterranean cities or Jerusalem to the heavily subsidized settlements. In particular, the exploding rents in the cities, many people simply can no longer afford. Compared to Kernisrael, the government in Jerusalem pumps vast amounts of taxpayers ' money into the settlements, with additional costs of around 350 million euros per year. For example, land purchases and other investments in the settlements are subsidised by up to 70 percent or low-cost loans are distributed to “emigrants”. In addition, there are lavish tax gifts and significantly higher salaries for state employees in the settlements, such as teachers or professors.
A 2014 study by the Israeli Macro Center for Political Economics found that every settler in the West Bank receives an additional $ 1,638 a year on average from the government, more than three times what people in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem receive in state subsidies. In addition, nearly half of the available municipal financial budgets of the settlements in the West Bank are financed by state funds (47 percent), while these account for just over a quarter of the national average (29 percent). The settlements literally hang on the navel of the Jerusalem Ministry of Finance – and attract people from the poor districts of the metropolises in the process of conversion.
The Ultra-Orthodox play a special and conflictual role in this complex. They mostly form highly isolated Communities and live 45 percent below the poverty line. In Israeli society, the Ultra-Orthodox make up around ten percent of the population, while in the settlements they make up a third of the population, which can be partly explained by the high ideological-theological attraction of “Judea and Samaria”, but is often based on simple economic pragmatism. While Israel as a whole has a historically low unemployment rate of three percent, of the ultra-Orthodox men only one in two is engaged in paid work, in the settlements even only 40 percent. And while the women not only have 6.9 children on average, but are also the main seamstresses of the family, the men prefer to devote themselves to lifelong Torah study. The general conscription of several years does not apply to you either. “Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist that their young men serve the Nation through prayer and Torah study,” writes The Times of Israel, “and that Integration into the secular military and the working world would undermine their lifestyle.”
For many Ultra-Orthodox, living in the West Bank settlements at the expense of the hard – working people in the metropolises is therefore an adequate way of life: their mere physical existence in the Holy Land fulfills the wishes of the government – and in their view also those of “God” - while the tram driver in Jerusalem and the waiter in Haifa are forced to pay for this life, fighting for economic survival themselves every day. The consequence of this contradiction is ever more seething conflicts in Israeli society – accompanied by an increasing lack of understanding, especially among young working Israelis, as to why they should alimony large sections of the settlers.
Each of these moves into the settlements, for whatever reason, each newly built house in the settlements reduces the prospect of a just peace, since the holes in the Swiss cheese called “Palestine” become irreversibly larger every single day: since all settlements bring with them a massive military infrastructure of Checkpoints, bases and massive soldier presence, each expansion of a settlement and each new foundation of an outpost in concrete and barbed wire creates materialized facts and thus - if we want to slip into martial rhetoric – a “front shift”. In this spirit, another important settler sub-group is to be understood, whose members literally understand their mere existences as military weapons: the ultra-religious, violent, often heavily armed right-wing radicals, whose literal interpretation of the scriptures recalls that of the Islamists around Al-Qaeda or the evangelical right-wing Christianists in the USA around Vice President Mike Pence. The then Defence Minister Ehud Barak (Labor) quite rightly declared about this group in 2011: “without any doubt we are talking about terrorists”.
As an example, reference should be made here to the highly interesting series of documents Radicalised Youth on Al Jazeera, in which extremist youth movements are portrayed worldwide and in a sequence the practices and world views of the Israeli Hilltop Youth are documented: a terrorist movement of mostly young settlers, which on the one hand wants to overthrow the state of Israel and replace it with a “pure Jewish existence” and on the other hand uses the establishment of illegal Outposts and the bloodiest violence against Palestinians. Israeli Talmud scholar Hillel Gershuni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem even speaks of the"rise of a Jewish ISIS in the West Bank.” Supporters of the Hilltop Youth often destroy the harvests of Palestinian farmers, cut down their olive trees, commit arson attacks against Palestinian homes and repeatedly attack Palestinian children on their way to school with slingshots and knives. My professor in Nablus told me how he himself testified many times how young settlers from the hills attacked Palestinian cars on the country roads with stones or firearms. The young Hilltop activist Uzi Shabat explains the group’s “price tag” policy, according to which any alleged attack on the illegal Outposts must have a “price”: “when Jewish blood is shed, the enemy’s blood is shed a thousand times more.”
A particularly cruel case of such a “price tag"attack, which caused worldwide excitement, occurred in the summer of 2015 in the village of Duma near Nablus. On the night of July 31, two masked youths carried out an arson attack on two houses belonging to the Dawabsheh family. 18-month-old Ali was burned alive, mother Riham (90 percent burned skin) and father Sa’ed (80 percent) succumbed to her burns days and weeks later. The four-year-old Ahmad survived with severe burns on 60 percent of his skin, and now lives with his grandfather Hussain. Two suspects have been charged, one of whom is already at large. A third person was released after ten months in prison. In the days and weeks after the attack, the tension and bewilderment of the people in the West Bank were palpable. In particular, the burnt Baby Ali became a Symbol of mourning for the victims of radical right-wing settler terrorism and abused by criminal Palestinians as justification for months of violence against Israeli security forces and civilians, the “knife Intifada” that should follow: the “price tag” has two sides and it turns and turns, Vendetta as the language of the mentally poor and desperate, so that the spiral of violence never stops turning.
Netanyahu’s “private Santa Claus” appearance, Donald Trump
But what is the role of the US president in all this? For decades, the US-Israel relationship has been known to be a sacred cow in Washington. And to avoid any misunderstandings: Barack Obama also pursued a horrible Israel policy. During his tenure, the number of settlers rose by well over 100,000. He did nothing to prevent the Gaza massacre in the summer of 2014, which is the most devastating war against Gaza’s civilian population since the 1967 occupation. In September 2016, shortly before leaving office, Obama gave Israel a historic aid package of 38 billion US dollars over ten years. And his decision at the end of December 2016 to break with his own Tradition and wave through a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, rather than veto it as usual, is just one of the many sleight-of – hand tricks of narcissist Obama: with one of his last acts in office – his memoirs already in sharp focus-he wanted to be remembered as the president who brought the Middle East peace process forward. Nothing could be more remote from the truth!
But with Donald Trump, the Netanyahu government and right-wing pro-Israeli groups in the United States suddenly had such a willing Supporter in the Oval Office as they have not had since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. From the beginning of his presidency, Trump made one gift after another to the Israeli right-wingers: he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US embassy there – both contrary to international law, as the scientific service of the Bundestag in a legal opinion makes clear without any doubt. Trump also closed the Palestinian embassy in Washington and stopped millions of dollars in aid to Palestine. In March 2019, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, breaking a UN Resolution that Republican legend Ronald Reagan himself supported in 1981 (from which Trump stole his Make America Great Again, by the way). As a thank you, infantile narcissist Trump was given an illegal settlement named Trump on the Golan by Netanyahu. This list could be continued a lot more: Haaretz quite rightly calls Trump Netanyahu’s “private Santa Claus – all year round”.
But in addition to these historically significant, but ultimately rather symbolic declarations and violations of international law, the most inconspicuous, but probably most destructive gift of Netanyahu’s “Santa Claus"is the benevolence towards illegal settlement construction in the West Bank. In a March 2020 study, the Israeli NGO Peace Now found that in the three years of the Trump presidency alone, 2,267 new homes were built per year in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem), which is 25 percent higher than the average value of the Obama presidency (1.807). These figures include the houses actually built in a year. But Netanyahu dreams big and wants to tap into everything that is politically possible in the era of the Trump-Schlaraffenland. Because: in addition to the buildings, the number of newly approved and newly planned houses in the settlements in 2019 was a staggering 9,413 units, which roughly corresponds to the figures for 2017 and 2018 – and thus more than three times the value of the last two years of the Obama presidency.
The Associated Press here speaks of the” Trump effect “and explains Trump’s settlement-friendly policies by saying that"his inner circle of Middle East Advisors has longstanding ties to the settler movement.” For example, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and US chief negotiator of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, has invested directly in settlements in the West Bank through his family foundation and thus benefited from them – corruption and gossip on a global scale. Finally, Trump’s settlement-friendly policy culminated in his administration since November last year considering the illegal West Bank settlements as no longer “inconsistent with international law,” only to de facto “recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Palestinian territories” with his absurd “Middle East peace plan “negotiated by Jared Kushner in January 2020.” In January and February 2020 alone, the Netanyahu government has already planned 7,582 new settlement houses, which is already only slightly below the total values of the previous three years. All these numbers mean that the settler population will grow by many tens of thousands in a few years, even far beyond Trump’s term in office.
Under Trump, illegal settlement construction is exploding – he and Netanyahu are doing everything they can to banish the fantasy of a viable Palestinian state to the dustbin of history once and for all.