Settlement expansion in the Occupied West Bank – Part 1: unjust pasts and interrupted futures
As Trump and Netanyahu propose an imbalanced and unjust “peace plan,” Palestinians continue to resist a complex infrastructure of oppression, including 72 years of land dispossession.
Demolition, displacement, dispossession, depopulation, death
On January 28, 2020, US President Donald Trump, accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a so-called “Peace to Prosperity” plan, calling for annexation of the Jordan Valley and the illegal Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, and seeking full Israeli control over Jerusalem. A little more than two months earlier, On November 18, 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had declared that the Trump administration does not view Israeli settlements in the West Bank as inconsistent with international law, deviating from decades of US policy upheld by both Republican and Democratic administrations.
On November 21, 2019, a short three days after Pompeo’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust.
The Trump administration’s “peace plan,” and announcement about the settlements—consistent with ongoing efforts to heavily increase support for Israel and greenlight settlement expansion in the West Bank—appear to have been, at least in part, signature Trump distraction tactics: ‘look over here at our support for Netanyahu’s (apparently no longer illegal) expansion of settlements, not over there at the same guy who is the first Israeli prime minister to be indicted while in office.’ And, ‘look over here at our “peace plan,” not over there at Trump’s impeachment.’
A few days prior to Mike Pompeo’s announcement declaring that settlements are suddenly not incompatible with international law, and that, as we already knew, international law does not matter much to the Trump administration anyway, I had just left East Jerusalem, where I had been staying at the end of my latest research visit to Palestine and Israel. For this visit, I traveled with the US-based organization Eyewitness Palestine as part of a leadership team for a delegation focusing on the occupation, with a particular emphasis on environmental injustice.
On the first day of the delegation, all participants were asked to share our thoughts as we prepared for nearly two weeks of site visits. Having looked at the city of Jerusalem from the heights of Mount Scopus upon arrival the day before, I said what had been on my mind since then: I was taken aback by the increased number of settlement structures visible in Jerusalem since my last stay a few years prior—all the new buildings that could be seen when perched high above the city. I knew that the statistics about house demolitions and settlement expansion supported this impression, but I could not have anticipated the extent to which this initial observation would be constantly reinforced by visual evidence throughout my time in Jerusalem and travels in the West Bank.
The settlements are what make it into the headlines of western media. Their continued presence and dramatic expansion are key to understanding the long-term implications of the occupation, and the daily injustices that Palestinians face. And yet, the way they are most often discussed is primarily in terms of statistics and lines on maps. Settlements are discussed using words like expansion, construction, and growth, even when the settlements are critiqued, and their illegality emphasized.
It is critical to recognize that every settlement involves demolition, displacement, dispossession, depopulation, and death.
Some settlements are pitched by real estate agents as desirable suburban “bedroom communities”—family-oriented neighborhoods equipped with swimming pools and ideal for professionals commuting to jobs in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. If listening to fragments of a typical cable news segment about settlements, an uninformed listener could be forgiven for thinking they were hearing part of a conversation about a scramble for real estate in the latest trendy neighborhood of New York City. But it is critical to recognize that every settlement involves demolition, displacement,dispossession, depopulation, and death. Beyond the jargon and numbers-heavy discourse concerning settlements, there are tremendous impacts on the daily lived realities of Palestinians who are losing their land and their homes, and often their lives.
This essay begins with a focus on settlement expansion in the Trump era, arguably the defining element of present discourse about the geopolitics of Palestine and Israel. The settlements, understandably, dominate contemporary analysis about the situation and prospects for the future. To truly understand the significance of the settlements, however, I argue that it is critical to recognize their connection to an intricate infrastructure of settler colonialism with deep historical roots, and the ways in which the continued presence and growth of settlements is determining the futures of Palestinians.
The settlements are the key feature of an unjust present, but they are also a window into the past, and the future, of Palestinians’ struggles for basic rights and freedoms. One need not go searching for signs of this past, or this future—the evidence has been unceasingly confronting on each occasion I have stayed in Palestine and Israel, from visits to villages expelled in 1948 to time spent with the residents of Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps, who are living with the health effects of constant tear gas exposure and lack of water access.
As the settlements grow larger, more infrastructurally elaborate, and wealthier, Palestinian neighborhoods and refugee camps continue to grow more crowded, infrastructurally weaker, and poorer. This essay contextualizes settlement expansion by reflecting on the experience of witnessing evidence of its historical roots still visible in Palestine and Israel today. It also reflects on learning from the experiences of Palestinians who are actively resisting restrictions on their quality of life and efforts to limit their possibilities for justice in the future.
The unjust present: culmination of decades of US policy
As Noura Erakat notes, it is important to recognize that the Trump administration’s reversal regarding settlements is “not necessarily a reversal in US policy, only in its stated policy.” While all US presidential administrations have officially agreed with international consensus that the settlements are in violation of international law, Erakat importantly highlights that US administrations have simultaneously “provided Israel with the unequivocal diplomatic, military, and financial aid in order to entrench their settlements.” She continues, “What we are seeing now is not a sharp reversal of US foreign policy on the question of settlements and Palestine, but instead the culmination of it.”
Trump is indeed only signing into ink what several prior US administrations had already consistently agreed to
It is critical to recognize that more than five decades of US policy paved the path for Trump’s recent dramatic moves in support of Israel, including the administration’s decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the divided city as Israel’s capital, and the choice to drop the word “occupied” from its description of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.
Though Trump is indeed only signing into ink what several prior US administrations had already consistently agreed to (and more importantly, acted on) in pencil, there are tangible consequences of Trump’s actions that are already negatively impacting Palestinians, particularly those directly affected by housing demolitions and evictions due to a spike in settlement expansion in Jerusalem since Trump took office.
According to data acquired from the Jerusalem Municipality by Israeli watchdog organization Peace Now, in the first two years of Trump’s presidency, 1,861 housing units were approved in East Jerusalem settlements. This is a 60% increase from the 1,162 approved in the previous two years. Permits for settler housing issued in 2017 were at their highest, 1,081 permits, since 2000. As the Associated Press notes, this data already shows a significant discrepancy, but cannot even account for the number of Palestinians who do not apply for permits due to reasonable expectations of systematic discrimination and denial.
Furthermore, B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, documents 169 houses and non-residential structures demolished in East Jerusalem in 2019 alone, more demolitions than in any single year since at least 2004.
At the end of my most recent trip, I spent a night in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyya, staying in the apartment of a Palestinian friend of a friend. Not far from the entrance of Isawiyya, on Mount Scopus, you can see settlements, including Pisgat Ze’ev, which has had new construction in recent years. Ziad Ghneim, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian and lifelong resident of the city, told me that parts of Isawiyya have become “a big mess,” with horrible conditions for many people living there. “It looks like another refugee camp,” he explains, his voice tinged with dismay.
Ziad, who goes by Abu Hassan, runs the political tourism company Alternative Tours, which operates in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. He tells me that in the less than two months between our meeting in Jerusalem in November 2019 and our early January phone conversation, he knows of at least 12 home demolitions that have occurred in Jerusalem alone.
Demolitions are ongoing within a context of fear. Isawiyya in particular is seen by Palestinians as a site of “collective punishment,” especially following near-constant raids that Israeli police have been conducting in the neighborhood over the past several months. In June, a 21-year-old Palestinian man was shot and killed by Israeli forces for reportedly discharging firecrackers, “in circumstances which did not pose a threat of death or serious injury to Israeli forces, raising concerns about excessive use of force in violation of the right to life” according to OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
OCHA also reports that 41 percent of all child detentions by Israeli police recorded in East Jerusalem are of children from Isawiyya. Children as young as five years old have been chased and apprehended by police. More than 600 residents have been arrested since the start of the period of intensified raids, and approximately a third of these people are reported to be minors.
OCHA has documented numerous violations of children’s basic human rights, such as police officers’ pursuit of a six-year-old boy, who is reported to suffer from asthma and a heart condition. The child, accused of throwing stones, was yanked from his mother’s arms, and his mother was instructed that he should be confined to the house. His father was summoned to appear at a police station the next day for interrogation. An eight-year-old girl, whose family’s home is in a building located next to the community high school, was injured in July when Israeli police entered the school to remove Palestinian flags. They set off a sound bomb, a fragment of which hit and injured her eye.
Historically, overcrowded Isawiyya, facing increasingly congested conditions, already had 1,212 dunums of land (nearly 300 acres) confiscated following Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem in 1967. This land was used to form the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (568 dunums) as well as the settlements of Ma’ale Adumim, French Hill, and Mishor Adumim, according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem. Ma’ale Adumim has grand continued expansion plans, including plans for Israel’s first waste-to-energy plant, which will cost $284 million. By exploiting occupied lands for the Israeli state’s benefit, this would-be ecologically progressive development is irrevocably tainted by the negative impacts it has for the occupied indigenous population, including unjust depletion of Palestinian resources without benefit, and with great hardship, for Palestinians.
Alaa Obeid, the father of the eight-year-old girl whose eye was injured by the sound bomb fragment, attempted to confront Israeli police following his daughter’s injury, ending with the arrest of him and his brother, including being beaten, shocked with a taser, and assaulted with pepper spray. As documented by OCHA, the girl’s mother, Alaa’s wife Rasha, said, “life has become very stressful [in Isawiyya], especially for children.” She explained:
“My children witnessed their father and uncle being beaten and this took a toll on them. That night was horrible! My 12-year-old boy had nightmares and we were all worried about my husband being arrested. Alaa and his brother spent two nights away. We had to pay 1,000 shekels bail each to release them and have them under home arrest for five days. All because we questioned the throwing of a sound bomb at our children!”
Palestinians persistently resist a complex infrastructure of oppression, but are often overpowered and outnumbered in the face of occupation.
Radical resistance to injustice
Settlement expansion is, of course, not confined only to Jerusalem. One of our Eyewitness Palestine delegation site visits was to the remarkable Om Sleiman farm, which grows organic produce without the use of any pesticides or genetically modified seeds on land located in Bili’in village, 12 km from the city of Ramallah. Om Sleiman is within direct view of Modi’in Illit, the largest settlement in the West Bank.
At Om Sleiman we met with Yara Duwani, who told us about the legal battle that the residents of Bili’in fought for Israel to move the path of its separation wall in order to reclaim land that had been disconnected from the village by the wall, which Israel built in spite of the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion declaring the wall illegal. The villagers staged weekly protests for years in opposition to the wall. Once Yara starts speaking, it becomes clear that she sits comfortably within this culture of resistance. But she is also reimagining the implementation of resistance, and has a creative and progressive outlook for what Palestinian resistance can look like in the future. She starts by telling us,
“You might wonder why young people from Jerusalem [like me] come here… I am from a city, I went to Barcelona to earn my BA. Usually farmers are 60 or above, and young people are not interested in farming! But I think we find meaning. For me to resist, this is one of the ways. I really believe that as a community we need to be self-sufficient.”
As Yara continues to explain her work on the farm, which runs without electricity and minimal, inconsistent water access, it becomes clear that just as the occupation has controlled Palestinian lives by consistently invading and controlling every aspect of basic daily living, people like Yara are resisting by reclaiming autonomy over the fundamentals of life and community-building: starting with the food they eat and the land they inhabit. Yara tells us:
“If we have freedom over our seeds, and vegetables, and trees, and water then our mind is also free and then we can become independent. We are dependent on the occupation in terms of food, electricity, and water, so how can we talk about freedom and independence if we don’t actually work on the education and the health system and the agriculture, which are the main aspects for any community? … It is very important for us as young people to make a statement to other young people as an example, because this is how we reconnect ourselves to the land.”
After meeting with Yara, as I walk down a long dirt path to exit the farm, one of the farm’s resident dogs trotting beside me, Modi’in Illit is clearly visible in the distance—large multi-story structures jutting out from the land high into the sky, and tall, looming cranes signifying ongoing construction and additional expansion.
I look back at Om Sleiman, its landscape of carefully cultivated earth, trees, and makeshift greenhouses crowned with a Palestinian flag waving in the wind. Om Sleiman is playing a critical role for Palestinian agriculture and the Palestinian economy—using heirloom, non-GMO seeds, and decreasing local dependency on imported Israeli crops. This form of resistance has accomplished so much since the farm’s establishment in January 2016. But with a seemingly ever-expanding settlement looming on the horizon, the farm’s bright future of resistance feels simultaneously defined by unsettling precarity.
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