When my daughter Bracha decided to sell her apartment in Modi’in, a small city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and move to a spacious corner house in Elkana, one of the first settlements over the so-called Green Line, no ideology or nefarious government scheme played any part in her decision. Her apartment, though spacious, was four flights up with no elevator, while the house in Elkana was a corner plot with a huge garden and adjacent parking. She could basically trade one for the other. In some ways, it was a no-brainer.
Still, I admit, a twinge went through my stomach. Except among the ideological religious right, there remains a certain queasiness among average Israelis about living in “the territories.” First of all, there is the security question, bolstered by years of terrorist home invasions and attacks on cars, so that many Israelis think twice before even visiting friends and relatives living there, let alone investing in homes. Then there is the uncertainty of government policy, which saw settlers in the settlements of Yamit (in the Sinai Peninsula in 1982) and Gush Katif (in the Gaza Strip in 2005) forcibly removed and their homes bulldozed by the Israeli government.
Aside from these practical considerations, though, most Israelis believe they have a legal and moral right to live in Judea and Samaria. According to The Peace Index, published June 4, 2017 by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 65 percent of the Jewish public in Israel disagreed with the statement that immediately after the Six-Day War Israel should have ceded conquered territories and launched negotiations with the Arab states for a comprehensive peace agreement. A majority (55 percent) in the same poll agreed that Israel should have annexed via legislation all the territories it conquered. Fifty-one percent agreed explicitly that the policy of building settlements in Judea and Samaria is wise.
Thus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on November 18 that “the establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not, per se, inconsistent with international law” was greeted with widespread satisfaction, even joy, in Israel. Fifty thousand Israelis joined together in Hebron at the Cave of the Patriarchs during the Sabbath in which the Torah portion tells of Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah. Many held signs thanking President Donald Trump.
The Palestinian reaction and, let’s face it, most of Europe’s, can be summed up by Nabil Amr, Fatah leader and member of the PLO’s Central Council, who told Al-Monitor: “The sole decision-makers in this regard are the Palestinians, and they have decided that every stone in any settlement is illegal and unacceptable.”
The prevalence of this kind of thinking in left-wing circles is proof that the relentless years of baseless, hate-filled propaganda by Israel’s enemies against the settlers and the settlements have taken their toll. Back in 2005, that same drumbeat eventually convinced even a hard-liner like Ariel Sharon to uproot every settlement in the Gaza Strip. But the presence of settlers is not necessarily the cause of hatred and violence, and the shocking aftermath of that withdrawal proved it. Far from ushering in an era of peaceful coexistence—or even a brief respite from hostilities—a judenrein Gaza Strip accomplished just the opposite: violence that escalated and continues to this day. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, in the last year alone, the violence emanating from Gaza has included eight killed, 282 wounded, 1,932 rockets/mortar bombs, 841 petrol bombs, 25 shootings,128 IEDs, 2,155 fires ignited by arson kites/balloons as of July and 8,747 acres of land burned—farmland, forests, nature reserves—at an estimated cost of 50 million Israeli shekels.
While the situation in Gaza differs from that of Judea and Samaria, the Gaza outcome does illustrate the truth of the second part of Pompeo’s statement, which most people missed—either accidentally or out of automatic opposition fueled by irrational Trump-hatred: “There will never be a judicial resolution to the conflict, and arguments about who is right and who is wrong as a matter of international law will not bring peace.”
Elkana may offer an example. When I went to visit the building site there, I was pleasantly surprised to find a leafy neighborhood with shopping centers and schools and synagogues that is undergoing a huge residential housing boom. But in the near distance, I also noticed a necklace of Arab villages.
“What kind of security do they have here? A fence? A guard?” I asked my son-in-law.
He shrugged. His parents have lived in Elkana from the beginning. He grew up there. It has lived in peace with its neighbors for decades.
Elkana was founded in 1977, on a hill with a strategic viewpoint only a half-hour’s drive from the center of Tel Aviv. It required a special legal dispensation, obtained by members of Gush Emunim, among them Elyakim Rubinstein—later the legal adviser to the Israeli government and a Supreme Court justice—who gathered the signatures of 64 Knesset members in the government of Yitzchak Rabin to endorse a bill allowing the settlement to be founded. The first residents set up caravans on the site, and it wasn’t until 2007 that the Israel Lands Authority issued formal building permits and leased the plots for residential housing. Today, Elkana has more than 4,000 inhabitants. Building in the area supplies work for hundreds of construction crews, most of them Palestinians from neighboring areas.
In the aftermath of the disastrous “disengagement” from Gaza, can we dare to contemplate the radical idea that proximity between Jewish and Palestinian communities in Judea and Samaria, far from being an obstacle to peace, actually encourages coexistence like that in Elkana? While there may not be any love lost between the Jewish settlement and its Arab neighbors, no one is launching rockets or setting the forests on fire. Whatever the answer is to the achievement of peaceful coexistence between Israel and her enemies, it is certainly not a legal question.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem.