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New U.S. Policy, Same Old Bind for Israeli Settlers and Palestinians

OFRA, West Bank — Benny Aumann, 62, a travel agent, admits to harboring a back-of-the-brain kind of insecurity living as an Israeli in Ofra, a Jewish settlement deep in the mountainous heart of territory claimed by the Palestinians.

“There’s a feeling that’s always floating above our heads,” he said, that should a peace agreement come about, “we could one day get notice to leave.”

Just up the road in Silwad, a Palestinian village whose land was confiscated to establish the Ofra settlement nearly half a century ago, Nihaya Hamed, 35, lives with a very different sort of insecurity.

She is raising four girls and a 7-year-old boy, who she fears will grow up to risk jail, or worse, by demanding his human rights, like the older youths who used to clash with Israeli troops outside the windows of her home every Friday.

The announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday that the United States no longer views Israeli settlements on the West Bank as necessarily violating international law has done little to change the essential insecurity on both sides of the conflict’s front line.

While experts debated whether the announcement gave Israel a green light to annex parts of the West Bank or flouted established international law, the only practical effect in the West Bank on Tuesday was a subtle shift in morale: It left Israeli settlers feeling slightly more confident and Palestinians slightly more depressed.

“I love this declaration, because it fits with my ideology, my opinions,” said Yossi Berkovitz, 57, who has lived in Ofra for 23 years and, like most of his neighbors, identifies with Israel’s national-religious movement: Orthodox Jews and Zionists who believe that Israel’s sovereignty and Jewish population should sweep over the biblical land of Israel all the way to the Jordan River.

“But if you ask me if it will change anything, it will not,” Mr. Berkovitz said. “Because there will come another administration, and they will say something different.”

Ms. Hamed, too, said the Trump administration’s policy shift would change little, but for a different reason. “America is biased,” she said. “The U.S. is pro-Israel, this is certain.”

Still, she said, it did chip away at one of the few ways that Palestinians could console themselves about the failure of their national project: that at least they were legally in the right.

Ofra and Silwad are yoked together by a half-century’s bitter history but kept apart by a skinny road, a small army post and rules barring visits to each other’s neighborhoods.

Silwad’s 7,000 residents, looking across the road, might covet Ofra’s idyllic subdivisions, with rows of red-roofed bungalows shrouded by enviably irrigated gardens and backyards. But at least, Ms. Hamed said, they knew that the settlers were outlaws in the eyes of much of the world.

“Seeing it as a crime was helpful,” she said. “Legally, politically and emotionally.”

Ofra was in many ways the ur-settlement on the West Bank when it quietly took shape in 1975, as religious activists who believed Jews have a divine right to the West Bank started sleeping in an old Jordanian army post, then persuaded the defense minister — Shimon Peres, who would later become a champion of the Israeli peace camp — to let them make it their home.

The location was provocative: north of Ramallah along the Samarian mountain ridge, in the heart of the West Bank’s Palestinian population, where settlement attempts had always been blocked. And the way it was settled — below the radar at first, with the aim of creating facts on the ground — set the mold for scores of other settlements that began as outlaw projects.

It also violated international law and Israeli law in many ways, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, among other critics. Chief among those: The Geneva Conventions bar an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into occupied territory, and an occupying power may not confiscate privately owned land for its own purposes.

While Israel rejects the argument that it is transferring people into occupied territory — Jews have lived there for thousands of years and settlers are moving are there voluntarily, Israel says — Israel considers settlement on privately owned Palestinian land to be illegal.

As Ofra grew into a Jerusalem suburb of 900 families and some 3,700 residents, some 60 percent of the settlement was built on land registered as the property of Palestinians, many of them in Silwad, B’Tselem reported in 2008. The group called it “the largest unauthorized outpost in the West Bank.”

“They know this is not their land,” Ms. Hamed said, standing outside her home in Silwad.

If the Trump administration was firmly on Israel’s side, she said, even Palestinian leaders were only giving lip service to the cause while quietly doing Israel’s bidding.

Her people have few international allies and, for the foreseeable future, little hope, she said. “Where is there for us to go? I’m seriously asking,” she said. “To whom should we apply?”

Naer Alawi, a furniture maker in Silwad, said it was pointless to expect help from the rest of the world. For all the years foreign diplomats called the settlements illegal, he said, they still did nothing to stop them from expanding. And it was the international community that brought Israel into existence, he said.

“We’ve been seeking justice from those who caused the problem in the first place,” he said.

To Ofra’s residents, however, calling Ofra illegal is like calling Tel Aviv a settlement.

“This is like any other place in the land of Israel,” said Mr. Berkovitz, an insurance agent who moved to Ofra with his wife, Michal, and their four children in 1996, then had two more, and now are raising two foster children.

The Berkovitz home sits next to vacant lot where nine homes were demolished in 2017, after settlement opponents, in a rare victory, were able to prove they had been built on private Palestinian land. But Mr. Berkovitz said their own home and most of their neighbors’ were no different.

That should not matter, he argued: No owner has ever surfaced, and no owner was living on or cultivating the land before Israel took control. Jordan’s king gave away West Bank land to many people before Israel conquered the territory in 1967, he said, and “nobody knows who owns what.”

Ms. Berkovitz, 56, a rehabilitation nurse at Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, said that sovereign Israel was settled just the way places like Ofra were — an argument that opponents of Israel’s right to exist often make to attack Zionism — so why should what happened since the occupation began, in 1967, be treated any differently from what happened before Israel’s founding in 1948?

“Why should those 19 years make such a huge difference in resettling the land?” Ms. Berkovitz asked.

Over an hourlong talk in the family’s tile-floored living room, Mr. Berkovitz said that as a religious man, he believed the West Bank was given by God to the Jews, but that “also in the Bible, it’s written that we will not receive this land all at once, but slowly, slowly.”

“In the meantime, it’s very important that we treat others nicely,” his wife said.

So what about their neighbors in Silwad?

Continued settlement and the potential annexation of the West Bank will pose a dilemma for Israel, the Berkovitzes acknowledged: whether to grant full citizenship rights to the Palestinians or keep them in a second-class status.

They spoke of limited “autonomy” for Palestinians. Others say that is apartheid.

“It’s a very complex situation,” Ms. Berkovitz said.

For all his Zionist fervor, Mr. Berkovitz said he would be willing to pull up stakes himself if “true peace” required abandoning the settlements. But then he said he did not believe a true peace would ever come.

Instead, he said, he hopes his Palestinian neighbors will eventually seek a better life somewhere else.

“Slowly, slowly,” he said again. “And maybe they will go.”

Rina Castelnuovo contributed reporting from Ofra, Mohammed Najib from Silwad, and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem.

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