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“Maximum land, minimum Palestinians”: How Israeli settlers and state collaborate to deport Palestinians from their towns

Jerusalem24 – A little under two weeks ago, the 220 residents of the village of Ein Samiya in the occupied West Bank dismantled their homes and left their village forever, following seven years of sustained and increasingly violent attacks by Israeli settlers living in nearby illegal outposts.

Ein Samiya is just the latest example of settlers securing Palestinian land for their own benefit, effectively acting on behalf of the Israeli government whose goal is to seize the West Bank for the Jewish state, says Dror Etkes, founder and director of Israeli NGO Kerem Navot which has documented settler activity and land takeover in the occupied West Bank for over 20 years.

We asked Dror what kind of mechanisms are in place that might allow settlers from outposts (illegal even according to Israeli law) to commit such severe attacks (also illegal under Israeli law) and succeed in driving an entire community into exile.


You said that the community of Ein Samiya being effectively exiled from their homes because of settler attacks is an example of “the state using the settlers and the settlers using the state”. What do you mean by this?

When you go back to the history of the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank, you can see that from the very beginning there was some kind of accord between the settlers and the Israeli government.

Imagine for a second, go back to 1968, the settlers’ invasion to the Park Hotel in Hebron. The settlers are coming to the hotel, the occupation is not even ten months old, they are supposed to stay there for the holiday – and they never leave. Eventually, Israel establishes a settlement in Hebron, and then they move to a settlement next to Hebron, Kiryat Arba, and then a decade later they are invading Hebron – and here we have one of the most aggressive settlements in the West Bank in the middle of the second biggest Palestinian city in the West Bank after East Jerusalem.

This is just an example of how things work. There are hundreds of examples of how the Israeli government has retroactively legalized projects which to begin with were considered illegal. Another present example we have now is Homesh, an Israeli outpost which is established on the lands of Burqa. Here we see how the Israeli government is cooperating with the settlers – and breaking even the Israeli law that is supposed to license construction everywhere in the West Bank.

The rationale behind this phenomenon is that the landgrab in the West Bank works in two parallel channels. There is the official channel that is controlled by the government and initiated by the government: these are all the military commands and the official landgrab actions which the Israeli government is taking all over the West Bank in order to advance the Israeli settlement project in the West Bank.

And then parallel to this project there is the unofficial landgrab, which is basically done by proxies and by different bodies which are created or controlled by the Israeli settlers, for example the JNF [Jewish National Fund], The WZO Settlement Division. The Israeli regional and local councils in the West Bank. Amana – the settlers’ organization which is standing behind most of the settlements and outposts. Plus dozens (or maybe even more) of NGOs which you never heard about, that are funded by public money.

These two channels – the official and unofficial – are both advanced in order to reach the same geopolitical objective: maximum land to Israeli settlers, Jews, in the West Bank, in order to dispossess Palestinian individuals and communities from a maximum area in the West Bank.

But the Israeli state has developed an arsenal of legal mechanisms to ‘legally’ overtake Palestinians land. So why use these two channels, why not just resort to ‘legal’ mechanisms?

That’s a good question and the answer is simple: you can get more if you violate the law. You can also take land which according to the letter of the law can’t be taken.

If you look at the total mosaic of what Israelis took over in the West Bank, you can see that huge parts of what has been grabbed, taken, robbed by Israelis in the West Bank couldn’t have been taken if Israel had respected its own laws. I’m not talking about international law – I’m talking about Israel’s domestic, military law, if you wish. The logic is very clear: if you respect the law, you have less land. If you break the law, you can take more land.

And this is exactly what happened. Israel decided to sacrifice the system of rule of law in order to get more land.

And this is nothing new: already in 1983 there was a committee which was headed by a woman, a lawyer who was back then a state employee in the Ministry of Justice. Her name is Judith Karp. She was licensed by the Attorney General to write a report about the situation of the so-called law enforcement on Israelis in the West Bank. And she described back then a few dozen cases from the 1970s and early 1980s which describe how the rule of law system had basically vanished when it comes to Israeli ideological criminal acts against Palestinians. Her conclusion was there is no specific problem in any one of the investigations; the problem is a comprehensive one, a systemic one. The rule of law system does not want to act – for obvious reasons.

You trace this practice of settler attacks all the way back to the 1980s. But have we been seeing an increase in these attacks lately?

There is an increase, no doubt, when we look at the numbers and the areas where these attacks are happening.

This is for several reasons. First of all, there are many more settlers, so there are many, many more potential aggressors. Of course the political climate makes a big difference: we know who is running this government, what kind of people. We know their history, we know their ideology. So we have here a political factor.

And then, there are many more outposts out there in the West Bank (and here I’m talking mainly about the herding outposts, this phenomena of about 50-60 herding outposts spread out across the West Bank). These are the main producers of violence in the West Bank. They are not the only one, but they are the main one.

And this [violence] is built into the system of these outposts: in order to establish such an outpost you need a very big herding area. These open herding areas are used by Palestinian communities, Bedouin or fallahi communities, for generations.

And what we saw for example in Ein Samiya last week, this is an exact example of what happens when settlers are establishing herding outposts in certain areas in order to deport (literally deport) Palestinian communities from lands where they have been living for years.

And it’s built into the system: in order to have these open herding areas, you need to make sure the Palestinians won’t be there. And the way to do it is violence. This violence is produced by settlers, and it is totally, fully backed up by the Israeli police and by the Israeli military.

Two of these outposts you mention, Maoz Ester and A’ira Shahar near Ein Samiya, have in fact been evacuated by the military several times. Why is this?

Because the system has to pretend that something is happening. At the end of the day, Israeli actions in the West Bank are under international criticism, and Israel is very much aware of the fact that there are “friendly countries” which are not happy with what Israel is doing in the West Bank. So part of the show is to create the impression that you are enforcing the law.

Now, everybody understands that this is a show. So the Israeli police is coming, and demolishing a few huts, and then one hour later the settlers are reestablishing them.

Nobody dares to touch the serious law violations. The real law violations are of course, huge segments within Israeli settlements that are built on privately-owned land. On the contrary: whenever it comes to court, the Israeli authorities are doing everything possible in order to postpone, in order not to evacuate outposts or settlements or parts of settlements which are constructed illegally (according to Israeli law) on privately-owned land.

So this is one aspect. The other aspect is the settlers which are standing behind the fact that they enjoy almost – I would say, almost – total impunity. Everybody knows that nothing can happen to these people. Nothing. I would say the red line is, you’re not allowed to murder a Palestinian and be recorded. But other than that, the margin of action which settlers are enjoying when it comes to violence, when it comes to violations of the law, is very, very flexible and very wide. And they understand it.

So after 55 years, we see the present reality, this is what we get.

Is this something you’ve experienced personally in your decades of work in the field?

Of course. You cannot be in the West Bank in the field without seeing it, without once in a while being a target to this violent type of action. Every Israeli activist who is in the field, who is trying to work against this type of activity is targeted by settlers.

Some of these threats and violent actions were against me, and I’ve seen many, many, many more against Palestinians of course. Settlers are much more careful when it comes to hurting Israelis and internationals. But I’ve seen it hundreds of times during the last two decades.

More than anything else, you can simply see the type of activity, what happens on the ground. You can see how systematically settlers are violating the law, are taking over lands that do not belong to them, and nothing happens.

Is there a future where the community of Ein Samiya return to their homes?

If I’m honest with you, no, I don’t see it. Not in the present climate, no.


(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Listen to the full interview on Wake Up Palestine.

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