Israeli Settlements on the West Bank
There is no doubt in my mind that Shimon Dotan’s documentary “The Settlers” will provoke strong reactions wherever it plays. The film traces the history of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and their growth through both individual action and the sometimes-tacit encouragement of Israeli politicians. Dotan doesn’t disguise his pessimistic perspective on one of the most fought-over areas in the world. He comes upon a range of rationales for living on contested land (as well as some surprisingly unguarded interview subjects).
The film begins by asking Israelis who have chosen to live in the West Bank questions such as “Are you a settler?” and “What is a settler?” Quite naturally we do not have much agreement on labels and definitions. This questioning serves as a framing device of sorts and by the end, we have divergent answers on how far the boundaries of Israel should go.
The documentary uses archival footage and contemporary interviews with the settlers and with academics and we see the settler movement’s growth as a kind of feedback l of incremental protests, governmental indifference and political calculation. The rabbi Moshe Levinger, a controversial leader of the settlement movement, describes the first push into the West Bank almost as if it was an act of civil disobedience, saying that “only after we actually settle will we be taken seriously.” Sarah Nachshon, a settler had her son circumcised in the Cave of the Patriarchs but the child died in infancy and she pressed for his burial in a West Bank cemetery. The film seems to say that this act had the effect of ensuring that some Israeli military presence remained in the area.
While we do hear from Palestinian voices, “The Settlers” is largely focused on the settlers, whose rhetoric often undermines their own case. One settler openly identifies himself as a racist; another gives details of his participation in a violent plot. We see signs of internal dissent when one settler admonishes another when he questions the wisdom of exclusionary politics.
We also look at the roadblock that the settlements have posed to the peace process. We see Yitzhak Rabin speaking about the cost of for security per family, adding that those costs don’t provide security for Israel. Talia Sasson, who published a report commissioned under the administration of Ariel Sharon, explains that she discovered that state funds were quietly used to build West Bank outposts. An interesting aside is that the name Benjamin Netanyahu is ever said in the film.
The film does not put labels and there no given categories for settlers. The settlements receive visitors who are evangelical Christians visiting the settlements from the United States and there are those that visit for no apparent reason other than to see. We meet an Israeli who has moved to the area to take advantage of the real estate prices. One settler who has grown up in the West Bank has built her home as a sort of tent or portable house so that it can be packed up easily. We see young groups of extremists and Partisans on both sides of the conflict will have plenty to argue with, as would be the case with almost any movie on this topic but what is unique here is that the film goes beyond what we usually see and gives us a real sense of what’s happening on the ground and this, in turn, provides a sense of urgency.
The documentary captures both the beauty of the West Bank and the complexity of the geopolitics that are tearing it apart. Dotan is wonderfully skilled as an interviewer who is able to present the settlers, an often-misunderstood segment of Israeli society, to a wide audience. However, we learn more about the dogma of left-wing Israelis than it does about settlers.
According to this dogma, the settlers are to blame for pulling Israel into the occupation. Aside from Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin, Israeli politicians from both the right and the left are presented in the film as lacking agency and power to take on expansionist colonial practices not as a matter of policy but because they are forced to do so by radical Religious Zionists.
Levi Eshkol explains here that settlement expansion is not in violation of the fourth Geneva Accord because Israel has always used its civilian population as part of its military defense system and this suggests the possibility that Israeli politicians built settlements as a matter of policy. Similarly, Shimon Peres is depicted as caving into the Religious Zionists’ demands for settlement expansion.
There is no mention of Ehud Barak’s insistence on speeding up settlement expansion while participating in the Camp David talks.
Despite the fact that Netanyahu has been prime minister since 2009 and has continued settlement expansion throughout his tenure, he is totally omitted from the film. We see very shocking footage from the right-wing demonstration that took place on October 5, 1995, almost exactly a month before Rabin’s assassination, at which many demonstrators called aloud and explicitly for Rabin’s death. However, there is no mention that the demonstration was co-organized by the Likud.
The only present-day politician featured in the film is Naftali Bennett, leader of the settler-affiliated party Jewish Home. The lack of other contemporary politicians makes it seem like the Israeli government’s continued expansion of settlements in recent years is the result of the pressure placed by Religious Zionists on politicians like Bennett.
Most of those interviewed are settlers, others are part of the security establishment, a few are Palestinians whose land has been occupied by Israelis, and still others are members of various governmental or non-governmental organizations who speak about different aspects of the occupation. Almost all share their personal experiences, and some also provide their own commentary.
Dotan neatly divides Israeli society into two groups: the radical religious settlers and everyone else. He sees that it is the radical settlers (some 20% of those living over the Green Line) who are dragging the rest of Israel into the conflict.
Because everything is attributed to a small group of religious zealots, left-wing dogma ignores the complexity of the contemporary Religious Zionist settler community and its pre-1967 origins. Dotan sees this as beginning in 1967, after the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War, with a group of settlers that held one fixed religious ideology. But ignoring the pre-1967 antecedents of the settler movement, the film, at times, is difficult to understand. Early in the film, we hear how the deceased Gush Emunim leader Hanan Porat wanted “to bring back” the children of Kfar Etzion to Kfar Etzion following the ’67 war. However, we never hear that the settlement-kibbutz of Kfar Etzion, located in the Etzion settlement bloc, was based on a community that had existed in the same location prior to the War of Independence and that was destroyed in May 1948. No mention is made of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935), who was a very powerful figure in the history of Zionism who still has immeasurable influence over religious Zionists, even though he was dead before the state of Israel came into being.
Without understanding this power, it is difficult to understand the messianic fervor that gripped the Religious Zionist community after 1967.
The ideological settlers that we see are represented through interviews and archival footage of men who played an active role in Gush Emunim (a settler movement formed after ‘67 by students of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook) who are described as “hilltop youth.” We get the impression that the entire Religious Zionist movement as it exists today descends in a straight line from this group, ignoring the evolution of the movement, and how the band of hilltop youth, for example, are held in contempt by many of the original Gush Emunim leaders. The reality is that the ideological settlers are much more diverse than the way they’re presented in the film.
By beginning the story of the settlers in ’67 we are to believe everything Israel was set off course with the occupation and settlement of the territories and therefore implying that a large territorial concession will swing Israel back on course. This is not what happened. Moving the settlers’ history to the aftermath of ’67 makes it easier to criticize them as a group that diverged from mainstream Zionism.
Dotan portrays the settlers as the Israeli left likes to see them; as a small group of fanatical Jews, at once entirely divorced from the rest of Israeli society and somehow capable of dragging everyone else into a deepening conflict. If Israeli society as a whole does not recognize its complicity in the occupation, it will never end.