In the West Bank, I Saw How Peace Will Require Confrontation with Israel

PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 1 Jan 2024

David Ignatius | The Washington Post - TRANSCEND Media Service

Villagers of Zanuta dismantle their houses and pack their belongings before leaving on 30 Oct. Since 7 Oct, violence from Israeli settlers in the West Bank has increased dramatically, with some Palestinian communities deciding to abandon their villages. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

16 Dec 2023 – Ekram Quran stands on the roof of her house on the edge of Al-Bireh in the West Bank, pointing to the hill 100 yards away where she used to roam as a girl among fig and olive trees. “It was a place to breathe,” she remembers. Now, what she sees is a barbwire fence and, beyond, arrayed along the hilltop, the buildings of an Israeli settlement called Psagot.

Four Israeli soldiers arrive about five minutes after we descend from the roof. They demand to see Quran’s papers and mine, for “security.” After checking our names, they return the documents and retreat to their post at the settlement gate. We were lucky. Quran says that late last month, a 20-year-old Palestinian man was shot and killed on the street next to her house during a demonstration.

“It is injustice,” Quran says when the soldiers are gone. Her family built this home in 1961. The Israelis began constructing their settlement 20 years later, after they seized the West Bank in the 1967 war. Today, she is powerless on her own property, which lies in a sliver of what is known as Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under total Israeli control.

The devastating war in Gaza was happening just 50 miles away as we spoke. But Quran, like most West Bank Palestinians I met over the past week, doesn’t speak much about the violence. They are angry but also frightened. Quran runs a graphic design business in Ramallah. She wants to keep working and survive. Her tone isn’t militant rage but, rather, a sorrow verging on despair.

For three days this past week, I traveled the West Bank, from the arid hills below Hebron in the south to the chalky heights of Nablus in the north. What I saw was a pattern of Israeli domination and occasional abuse that makes daily life a humiliation for many Palestinians — and could obstruct the peaceful future that Israelis and Palestinians both say they want.

Driving the roads of the West Bank is — forgive the term — a “two-plate” solution. Israeli settlers with yellow license plates zoom along on a well-guarded superhighway called Route 60. Palestinians with white plates navigate small, bumpy roads. Since Oct. 7, many of the entrances to their villages have often been closed. Traveling in an Israeli taxi with a Palestinian driver, I saw some of both worlds.

An Israeli checkpoint along Route 60, visible from the kitchen of a house in Al-Aroub refugee camp in the West Bank on Nov. 21. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

I watched backups at Israeli checkpoints near Bethlehem and Nablus that were over a half-mile long and could require waits of more than two hours. The delays, indignities and outright assaults on Palestinians have become a grim routine. “If I’m in a yellow-plate car, does that change my blood?” asked Samer Shalabi, the Palestinian who was my guide in the Nablus area.

My tour of the West Bank was a reality check about what’s possible “the day after” the Gaza war ends. President Biden and other world leaders speak hopefully about creating a Palestinian state once Hamas is defeated. I’d love to see that happen, too. But people need to get real about the obstacles that are in front of our eyes.

On the ground, amid the grinding daily pressure of Israeli occupation, the shared hope for a Palestinian state can seem like a fairy tale — soothing to hear but a version of magical thinking. Standing in the way are the Israeli settlements and outposts laid across the hilltops of the West Bank, their high fences and concrete walls symbolizing their apparent immovability.

“The settlements were put there to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state,” argued Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who is perhaps the country’s leading critic of the settler movement. He offered a guided tour of settlement issues for me and two State Department officials Monday, explaining the patchwork of the West Bank from the heights of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives.

Here’s how the math would work for the “de-occupation” that Seidemann says would be necessary for a viable Palestinian state. More than 700,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, and at least 200,000 would have to leave, he estimates. Some settlers would resist. “There is a significant possibility of a civil war between the state of Israel and the settler state of Judea and Samaria,” he warned, using the settlers’ biblical terms for the areas of the West Bank.

“If it’s not painful, it won’t be significant,” Seidemann concluded.

The pieces are falling into place to conclude the Gaza war

For settlers, obstructing Palestinian statehood is part of the mission, Yehuda Shaul, a leading Israeli expert on settlements, told me. He noted that back in 1980, Matityahu Drobles, who was then head of the World Zionist Organization’s settlements department, stated his goal bluntly in a broad plan. “Being cut off by Jewish settlements, the minority [Arab] population will find it difficult to form a territorial and political continuity,” he wrote at the time. “The best and most effective way of removing every shadow of a doubt about our intention to hold on to Judea and Samaria forever is by speeding up the settlement momentum in these territories.”

Biden is the latest president to confront the reality that addressing the Palestinian issue means confronting Israel — especially over settlements. The number of official settlements and unrecognized but pervasive “outposts” keeps growing. A group called Peace Now says this year marked the biggest increase since the group started tracking settlements in 2012.

And in recent years, there has been a frightening increase in violence by settlers against Palestinians, in what human rights advocates say are deliberate efforts to frighten them off land that the settlers believe God gave to Israel.

Settler violence has surged since Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist assault, which killed approximately 1,200 Israelis. Since then, there have been 343 settler attacks against Palestinians, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. At least 143 Palestinian households, with 1,026 people (including 396 children), have been displaced by violence. Settlers have killed eight Palestinians and injured 85, the U.N. organization says.

The violent settlers almost always go unpunished. From 2005 to 2022, 93 percent of the 1,597 investigations opened by the Israeli police into cases where Israelis were said to have harmed Palestinians were closed without indictment, according to Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din; only about 3 percent led to convictions.

The threat to Palestinians is especially severe in Area C, where Israelis outnumber Palestinians by more than 400,000 to 300,000. The Israeli military severely restricts travel by Palestinians there, and settlers regularly attack villages and Bedouin camps.

A last word about settlements before I describe details of my trip. I have some close Israeli friends who live in settlements, and they are decent, principled people. Many of them would probably move if the Israeli government decided that a two-state solution required it. The violence comes from extremist settlers — and the danger is that they seem to have support from members of the Netanyahu government.

One sign that the Biden administration might be taking the settlement issue more seriously was the announcement this month that settlers believed to have been involved in violent attacks against Palestinians may be denied visas to enter the United States, along with their family members. That’s not a solution to this big problem, but it’s a start.

Let’s begin our tour at the southern edge of the West Bank, in the dry hills south of Hebron. Israeli settlements have expanded in this region. A new wrinkle here is the fight over “herding outposts,” where Israeli farmers have tried to drive off Bedouin shepherds who have been grazing this land for a century.

Saleh Abu Awad, one of those Bedouin shepherds, met me Monday by the side of a rocky field sprouting with green shoots in the mild December weather. He is thin, with a weathered face and trim beard, and was wearing a dusty sweatshirt emblazoned with a faded Emporio Armani logo.

Saleh Abu Awad, a Bedouin herder attacked by settlers in July.
(David Ignatius/The Washington Post)

Nearby is the Israeli settlement of Meitarim, along Route 317, and an outpost known as Asa’el. You can watch a video in which an Israeli family at Asa’el celebrates the joys of farming this land, with children doing cartwheels on bales of hay.

A haggard Abu Awad said that on July 13, he was attacked by settlers while he was grazing his sheep. “This is our land. You should not be here,” one of the settlers told him. Abu Awad told me his family has been grazing its sheep nearby since the time of his great-grandfather. But the settlers were intent. Abu Awad said a group came back later and burned six of his tents and drove off 130 of his sheep, which he estimates were worth nearly $50,000.

Abu Awad didn’t bother complaining to the Palestinian Authority. “They don’t have any power,” he said. The settlers have continued raids in the area. I’ve watched nearly a dozen instances of harassment captured on videos by Palestinian activists.

In this area, known as Masafer Yatta, settlers have forcibly displaced the residents of a number of entire communities since Oct. 7, according to human rights organization B’Tselem. The settlers came back as recently as last Sunday, the day before I talked with Abu Awad. Many Bedouins have fled these grazing lands in fear, but Abu Awad said he is staying.

“I don’t have any other place to go,” he said. “We’re not the [Israelis’] enemies. We just want them to leave us alone.”

For those Israeli settlers who hope to drive Palestinians from Area C, the farmer-outpost strategy seems to be working. A settler leader named Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever explained the strategy to his organization, Amana, the main construction company for the settler movement, in February 2021. “The shepherding farms which have increased … today they cover close to twice the land that the built-up communities [settlements] cover,” Hever said. “If it’s a war, if there’s a battle for Area C, [local settler leaders] should behave like it’s a war.”

We drove north, along settler superhighway Route 60. We entered Hebron, a dusty industrial town that for 40 years has been skirmishing with a settlement called Kiryat Arba, planted near the heart of the city.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, one of the far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, lives in Kiryat Arba. In August, he told a journalist: “My right, and my wife’s and my children’s right, to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.”

Road closures make travel a nightmare for Arabs. We passed the entrances to a string of Palestinian towns and villages traveling north; most have been blocked by the Israeli military with big piles of dirt or metal gates. Palestinians who want to travel outside their villages in Area C must pass through checkpoints staffed by often capricious Israeli soldiers.

Olives harvested by Palestinians near their village in Susyia, West Bank, on 4 Nov
(Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

You can see the toll of this harassment in the terraces of derelict olive trees along the road north, near Hebron. Palestinian farmers have been afraid to pick their olives — or have been physically prevented from doing so. A Western diplomat told me olive oil production in the West Bank might be 35 percent below average this year as a result.

Jerusalem is the jewel in the center of this land. It’s also the most volatile battleground between settlers and Israelis — and the place where the United States will have the biggest challenge in framing a compromise. Seidemann showed the two State Department officials and me how this sacred battleground looks. His worries are summed up in the title of a study he prepared this year for political and religious leaders around the world: “The Strategic Encirclement of Jerusalem’s Old City.”

From Mount Scopus, in East Jerusalem, Seidemann pointed across the hills toward a big settlement called Ma’ale Adumim, which houses some 40,000 people. For several decades, Israeli leaders have hoped to vastly expand it with a project known as E1. Seidemann calls that a “doomsday land bridge” that would cut any future Palestinian state in half, separating south from north.

Seidemann took us southeast to the Mount of Olives and a view of Jerusalem’s Old City, which is sacred to three religions. We saw the golden Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosques revered by Muslims; the Garden of Gethsemane and other Christian holy sites; and beyond the Temple Mount where the mosques are located, the Western Wall — the “Wailing Wall” — that’s sacred for Jews.

One big goal for conservative, religious Israelis is to increase their presence throughout the Jerusalem area. To the south, Seidemann pointed to where settlers plan to build a cable car over the predominantly Palestinian district of Silwan that would reach the walls of the Old City. To the north, where the Christian sites are located, there’s talk about constructing a biblical theme park that would be overseen by the Israeli parks authority. The political struggle over Jerusalem “has been driven by religious pyromaniacs,” Seidemann told me.

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David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is The Paladin.


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