Saturday, February 28, 2009

Settlements are Brilliant

Settlements are a brilliant, shrewdly branded strategy. The term “settlements” is so diminutive and disarming. I never bothered to obtain a clear understanding of what they are because my attention was deflected by the connotations of the word “settler.” I figured they were small encampments of families, living off the land and somehow interested in being off the grid, or out amidst nature. After all, prior to settlers, land is unsettled, somehow up for grabs, right?

Had they been called “gated communities”—the softest possible semi-accurate name, more people might have questioned their acceptability or the impact that they might have on a peace process and reconciliation. If they were called “networked, militarized, communal fortresses”, there might at least be more interesting photos taken of the imposing unapproachability that they broadcast.

These are just remarks about vocabulary, its tremendous power and the visual impression that settlements inevitably make when viewed from outside, which is below. This is one of the first things that you notice about settlements: they originate on hilltops, and when they expand, which is their purpose, they expand along ridges that connect hilltops. I’m fairly certain that there is not a single settlement from which anything could be thrown from a Palestinian residence. The reverse is far from true.

Palestinians, I was told by several West Bankers, have historically opted to live in valleys where warmth and water collect. When you are neither attacking nor defending your community, arid hilltops are a poor choice of habitation. However, when you can deliver all modern conveniences to your hilltop estates quickly and easily, the initial inhospitability of the hilltop becomes a non-factor, which raises the all important subject of roads.

I had no idea (and it is not much discussed in the international media) that settlements have their own new, private highways connecting them to one another and to places outside the West Bank. (And for clarification, I am talking exclusively about settlements in the West Bank—the humanitarian disaster of the boxed in people of Gaza is a different issue that I have not experienced first hand.) This private, top-of-the-line transportation grid is not a small or incidental creation. The roads crisscross the West Bank and when they glance the periphery of a Palestinian community, Israel has piled giant rock barriers preventing access to the road and erected squat bunker/watchtower outposts that facilitate checkpoints.

Since the vast majority of Palestinians are denied any access to these roads and since—I’m pretty sure—there are not going to be any tunnels under them or bridges over them, these roads constitute a second, far more damaging wall. So what if children can dash across without always being shot, if a community cannot bring its goods across a concrete barrier, that thing is a wall. This growing network of roads and settlements is creating a new level of isolation for a people who are already exceptionally isolated behind an enormous, better known and more photogenic wall. Now towns within the West Bank are functionally cut off from each other. If there used to be a ten minute driving separating two towns or villages, now it might be an hour and ten minutes. Freedom of

movement becomes nominal when it becomes expensive and time-consuming to move.

This isolation is further increased by a weak Palestinian telecommunications network. Finding reception in the West Bank can be very difficult. Well, Palestinian Telecom could just build towers on a few hilltops . . . oh wait, hilltops are increasingly covered with Israeli settlements, which you can bet have no enthusiasm about helping Palestinians to communicate.

I referred to settlements as a brilliant strategy. Looking at them is like watching a skillful player arrange a battlefield (in Risk, in Go) so artfully that his opponent is ruined before open conflict begins. The roads and the hilltops are a constrictive force. Isolation becomes unlivability, the strangulation of communities. This process seems to be taking place with the same speed that the wall was constructed. I saw several fetal settlements—inhabitable, ugly, secure containers, surrounded by defensive fencing at the end of a nice road, terminating on a hilltop. Settlers take turns manning their encampments as they transform into brand new, attractive, self-contained towns. At least where I went (Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron), Palestinians could generally point to one nascent barbed wire enclosure and say, "In two years, that will look like the settlement just around the corner." Many times one settlement can be seen from another.

For what it is worth, I am just describing what I’ve seen and offering a potential interpretation of the likely effects of the continued expansion of the settler network. I call it a strategy because I do not think that the benefits of building a fully functioning, members only state on top of a weakened Palestinian territory have escaped the people who organize this militaristic expansion.

I have not gone into detail about the worrying grievances that I have heard from West Bankers who work for the UN or the Ministry of Education, grown, well educated people who tell that the settlers throw garbage and sometimes rocks at Palestinian children who must pass by the settlement walls on their way to school or the stories about settlers who allow (and encourage) their dogs to attack Palestinians who are passing nearby, the settlers who have shot at UNICEF vehicles and who shoot at and destroy Palestinian water collection containers in random retribution for events elsewhere in Palestine. I didn’t see any of that happen; nor have I witnessed a settler shooting at civilians from his hilltop. The fact that so many people so far removed from fundamentalism and so well connected to my professional existence are full of grievances like this, can just stand on its own, shedding light on the sort of relationship that these settlements seem to be fostering.

What I see here is clear evidence of a brilliant strategy—already far along in its execution—to make life in the West Bank undesirable and unlivable for Palestinians, who, thanks to the walls built around them, do not have anywhere else to go. I shudder to think of the real endgame towards which this is leading.

An afterthought on resistance:

I asked a colleague from the UN why Palestinians did not organize to erect basic dwellings on their remaining hilltops as an investment towards the possibility of saving their way of life. She referenced a law governing new construction above a certain altitude or within a certain distance of a hilltop. So, there may already be a legally enshrined assurance that Palestinians will have to watch their country disappear, which would mean there is really nothing they can do about it—at least without considerable and prompt assistance.

By the way, please don't worry. I don't often to travel to the Middle East and I'm unlikely to be in Palestine again soon, so if you don't enjoy these subjects, don't expect to be bombarded with them in future posts. I've just found the experience of crossing through the wall and seeing what's happening in the West Bank to be more affecting than I anticipated.

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