The History & Consequences of Israeli Settlements
“The Settlers” is the first film of its kind to offer a comprehensive view of the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories of the West Bank. This is a historical overview, a geopolitical study and an intimate look at those people at the core of biggest challenges facing Israel and the international community today as the Palestinians and Israelis resume talks again. As Israel faces international condemnation over its plan to build 153 new settlement homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the watchdog group Peace Now reports Israel’s defense minister has approved the construction of the new Jewish-only homes last week. The plan sparked criticism from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called the settlements “an affront to the Palestinian people and to the international community.” In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Ban Ki-moon’s criticism gives “a tailwind to terrorism” and that the “U.N. lost its neutrality and moral force a long time ago.” This comes just as President Barack Obama spoke at the Israeli Embassy to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying, “We are all indeed Jews.” The film examines the history and consequences of decades of Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian lands and has just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. For a topic that is such a heated and often discussed topic, little is known about it, and discussion is often misinformed. The film asks the question, ”What is a settler?” and it offers an answer almost immediately: “a religious fundamentalist driven by messianic ideology who believes Jews have the exclusive right to the West Bank and may use all manner of subterfuge, violence and lawbreaking to fulfill the divine imperative of settling the Holy Land”. While there is truth in this answer, it is not the whole truth.
Most settlers, director Shimon Dotan says do not fit this description. They are “economic settlers” – Israelis who live in the West Bank because it’s cheaper than living in Israel proper. They are overwhelmingly law abiding, reside mostly within commuting distance of major Israeli cities and include secular Jews among their ranks. He goes on to say that 320,000 of the West Bank’s 400,000 settlers fall into this category. Only the remaining 80,000 are “ideological settlers,” who live there for reasons of religious or political principle. Of those, only a fraction are extremists.
That context is largely missing from his film, which focuses almost exclusively on the far-right religious extreme – the hilltop youth who illegally occupy remote outposts, the young Jews who perpetrate and celebrate violence against Palestinians, residents of the most fanatically anti-Arab communities in the West Bank. Dotan focuses on the fringe because it is the extremists who determine the course of the entire movement.
By failing to provide much context about mainstream settlers, the film conveys the message that the Jews of the West Bank are exclusively racist, murderous zealots and the only challenge to Israeli-Palestinian harmony. A newspaper columnist describes them in the film as “a monster of half a million people standing in the way of peace.”
Though relatively small in number, these extremists wield outsize influence on the settlement enterprise, on Israeli-Palestinian relations and on Israeli policy. Increasingly, they are a focus of worldwide attention. The film forces us to deal with the ugliness in the settler movement and this is in such contrast with the beauty of the West Bank that we see in the wonderful photography here. The subjects include the settler from Tekoa who proudly declares himself a racist, the father who talks jovially to his young sons about beating up Arabs when they grow up, the settlers who want their enterprise eventually to swallow the Kingdom of Jordan and perhaps go all the way from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates in Iraq.
Today, some 50 years after the first settler made his home in the West Bank, the settlement drive is a clear-cut success. The settlers see themselves as pioneers, the leaders of Israeli society. The question is: Where are they leading it?
Dotan, approaches his subject chronologically. He starts with the leaders of Gush Emunim, the ideological movement that, influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, believed that the 1967 war heralded divine redemption and that settling the newly conquered territory would help usher in the messianic age.
The film intersperses interviews with the movement’s aging leaders with archival footage of those leaders as young men, leading demonstrations, establishing new West Bank outposts, celebrating with followers. Where there’s no footage, Dotan uses illustrations and voice-overs to tell crucial parts of the story. This is a fascinating look at how the settlements came into being, and the men and women on the movement’s fringe who continue to push its boundaries both ideologically and physically. “The Settlers” also documents how the Israeli government (sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly and often unwittingly and without foresight) helped build and reinforce the settlement enterprise.
In one scene, Sarah Nachshon, who played a very important role in establishing the Jewish settlement in Hebron, recalls how she forced the reopening of the old Jewish cemetery at a time when it wasn’t clear Israel would allow Jews to remain in the city. In was the mid-1970s, and her infant son had just died in his crib. She insisted on burying him in Hebron, even though no Jew had been buried there since before Israel’s establishment.
When Israeli officials refused, Nachshon simply ignored their orders, marching past Israeli soldiers with her dead baby in her arms. Once the baby was interred, the cemetery became another site Israeli soldiers were compelled to patrol – another active Jewish outpost in the West Bank. The film features interviews with members of the Jewish Underground, who in the 1980s carried out bombing attacks against the Palestinian mayors of Nablus, Ramallah and El Bireh (two were maimed, one escaped unharmed), plotted to blow up the mosque at the Temple Mount and planted bombs on Arab buses. Israeli officials caught them and defused the bombs before they exploded. They show no remorse whatever.
We see undated scenes of Jews beating Arabs in their fields with crowbars, Jews beating Arabs in the streets of Hebron, a Jew explaining how in the Jewish tradition that revenge is an important thing.Palestinian violence against Israelis goes almost unmentioned, except for a few oblique references. In t his film, in fact, the only Palestinians we see are victims. That is because, as Dotan says, Palestinian violence is “irrelevant” to this story. The primary target for this film is Israelis, among whom he hopes the movie will spark conversation.