The settlements of the West Bank built in the past decade, privately financed and publicly backed, have attracted nonpolitical Jews, both the well-off looking for gated communities and poor, big families who just want affordable housing.
Modi’in Illit (Upper Modi’in) is a large settlement in the occupied West Bank, built on the land of the Palestinian villages of Ni’lin, Kharbata, Saffa, Bil’in, and Dir Qadis. Modi’in Illit is the fastest-growing settlement in the West Bank and will soon be granted the status of a city. It has a population of more than 30,000 and Israel’s housing ministry plans that it will grow to 150,000 by 2020. It is typical of the large settlements that successive Israeli governments have considered part of non-negotiable settlement blocs that must be annexed to Israel. And it clearly shows the connection between the construction of the separation wall and the growth of the settlements.
Its expansion has ruined the Palestinian farmers of Bil’in, a small village of 1,700 inhabitants. The separation wall being built between Modi’in Illit and Bil’in swallows half the village’s remaining lands, about 450 acres.
Since February 2005 the people of Bil’in have led a popular, non-violent struggle against the wall that robs them of their lands. They have demonstrated each Friday, hand in hand with Israeli peace activists and international volunteers, in front of the bulldozers and the soldiers. This is not an isolated case: they have joined other Palestinian villages directly affected by the wall, including Jayyus, Biddu, Deir Ballut and Budrus, which for the past four years have led campaigns of non-violent resistance against the wall. These campaigns, almost unknown outside Palestine, are usually coordinated by local Popular Committees against the Fence. They have had modest but significant gains, impeding or slowing down the advancement of the wall consuming their lands and condemning them to life in small or middling enclaves. In such cases as Budrus and Deir Ballut, tenacious resistance, combined with appeals to courts and solidarity campaigns, has even changed the course of the wall, enabling the communities to regain some lost vineyards, water sources and fields.
These modest achievements have special significance set against Israel’s uncontested superiority. Israel has relied on military force, supported by the United States and Sharon’s disengagement plan, to gain ground steadily while the Palestinians have grown more isolated. Internationally, Israel’s unilateral policy has been accepted, if not always welcomed.
The importance of the intifada of the wall is its staying power. The small-scale experiments with non-violent resistance and mass protest, which were marginal to the second intifada, seem to have put down roots and even borne fruit. As chances of a just peace in Palestine recede and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza grow used to a life between barriers and walls and within enclaves (1), popular resistance and non-violent protests point towards new possibilities for the future.
About 200 people have been injured in Bil’in during demonstrations, and many have been arrested. The army, border guards, police and private security firms were deployed against protesters, with clubs, teargas, rubber bullets and live fire. Israeli forces have tried to deter the members of the Bil’in popular committee through late night sweeps and arrests (2). The authorities open admitted that special forces (the Masada unit) were sent to Bil’in: agents provocateurs disguised as Arabs who joined in the demonstrations and tried to incite demonstrators to use force (3). Only the determination of the committee has prevented these provocations from causing an uncontrolled, possibly lethal, escalation.
The wall is there to protect the colonial project that is Modi’in Illit. Although the occupation is often seen as an interstate conflict (especially since the creation of a Palestinian Authority), the Israel/Palestine conflict is colonial. In it, public declarations, diplomatic moves and symbolic gestures recede before the realities of wells and olive groves, buildings and roads, emigration and settlement - things that radically transform the landscape just as do political borders.
Israel’s military and political control since 1967 has strengthened colonialism. Settlements, walls and roads are its most conspicuous elements. Of these, settlements are the most crucial: the biggest obstacle to establishing an independent, viable Palestinian state. Between 1967 and 2006 Israel built around 40,000 housing units in the West Bank, at a cost of $4.3bn; by January 2006 there were more than 250,000 settlers in the occupied territories, including the Golan Heights (4).
Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are routinely condemned but seldom studied. We need to look at their social composition and economy, and ask who profits from the colonial project. What drives ordinary people to take part in it, becoming instruments of dispossession and perhaps its future victims? Modi’in Illit is a perfect example. It was not the work of nationalist-messianic settlers and their political representatives, but of a heterogeneous social-political alliance linking real-estate developers, investors looking to make a profit and politicians pushing the colonisation project. It is one of the fastest-growing settlements in the West Bank, and among the few that still expanded during the second intifada. It is populated not by nationalist hardliners, but by poor, large, ultra-orthodox families, many of whom have traditionally maintained a distance from political Zionism and the state of Israel, and just want to improve their living conditions. Here social misery, quick profits and dispossession meet.
A free hand
Modi’in Illit was founded in 1996, under the name Kiryat Sefer. Unlike most settlements, usually founded by an alliance of state authorities, Zionist organisations and radical settlers’ movements, it was founded by private entrepreneurs after the Oslo accords, during the years of ruthless privatisation. It became an example of a new style of colonial settlement, led by private capital and backed by the state. The local council has accorded its powerful investors special treatment (Israel’s state comptroller revealed that it had ignored building regulations and reduced taxes). Thousands of housing units were built in violation of the law: the local council approved them and adjusted the zoning plan retroactively. In Israel’s Wild East, the political urgency of the colonisation process works together with investors’ attempts to secure quick profits and gives developers a free hand.
According to a 1998 investigation, the entire Brachfeld estate, built on the lands of Bil’in, had no construction permits. But no house was demolished. Much of the town’s sewage flows into the Modi’in stream, polluting water resources. This is not just corruption or mismanagement but a structural feature of the colonial frontier: unregulated settlement activity allows vast profits at the expense of the environment, human and natural.
The residents of Bil’in face a powerful alliance of political and economic interests. Two neighbourhoods will be built on their stolen lands. The Green Park project is being constructed by Dania Cebus, a subsidiary of Africa-Israel Corporation, a real-estate investment firm owned by one of Israel’s most powerful businessmen, Lev Leviev. It is a massive project, a $230m enterprise with 5,800 apartments. The revenues of Africa-Israel recorded a sharp increase in 2005 and its operating profits grew by 129%. All these investments depend on the route of the wall, which will make the new neighbourhoods safe and raise the value of land investments, but divide the villagers of Bil’in from their lands, completing the annexation process.
The developers who claim to be the legal owner of the lands on which a new neighbourhood is being built are Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property and the little-known Land Redemption Fund. The custodian, a government body entrusted with the management of absentee land, has played a key role in taking possession of Palestinian land (5). The fund, established 20 years ago, coordinates the takeover of Palestinian land in key areas earmarked for the expansion of the settlements. Its founders include ideological leaders of the settlers, as well as Era Rapaport, a leader of the settlers’ terrorist network that operated in the occupied territories in the early 1980s. He served several years in prison for his involvement in an assassination attempt on the mayor of Nablus, Bassam al-Shak’a, who was maimed in the attack.
The fund’s acquisition methods are described in an investigation by Israeli journalists (6): “The fund’s intelligence network is made up of former [Palestinian] collaborators who were discovered and returned to their villages, retired Israeli General Security Services operatives who are information contractors for pay, and former military governors”, who use their “connections in the villages”. Arabs act as mediators in the deals, usually posing as buyers, while the lands are purchased “funded by money from rightwingers such as Lev Leviev and the Swiss tycoon Nissan Khakshouri”. Similar methods were used to take possession of the lands of Bil’in.
The project is inextricably both economic and political. The fund’s donors include capitalists who are settlement builders, and real estate investors. Their considerable donations to the radical settlers’ fund are made less from political conviction than for profit. The same alliance exists elsewhere in the West Bank, for example in the settlement of Tzufin, where an 11-fold expansion is under way. The developer is a company controlled by Lev Leviev.
The areas on which the fund has chosen to focus are also significant: “Its main project is to blur the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 border] by linking the settlements [in the West Bank] to communities inside the Green Line and expanding communities inside the Green Line in the direction of the territories . . . to create facts on the ground” (7). These settlements are part of a larger project, begun in the 1980s, to dissolve the Green Line by creating middle-class settlements for non-ideological settlers close to Israel’s economic centres. The second intifada halted this but it resumed gradually in 2003 with the completion of parts of the separation wall, leading to the de facto annexation of areas of the West Bank between the wall and Israel. Higher living standards were promised in a space made safe for investors and settlers, as Palestinian communities were made to disappear behind the wall: discreet ethnic cleansing.
So Israel’s settlements near the Green Line and adjacent to the wall have a strategic significance. Even before the last election there was a broad pro-wall coalition which has now crystallised around the political legacy of Ariel Sharon, an alliance of devotees of gradual annexation (“Israel should keep the settlement blocs”) and “reasonable” colonial expansion (compared with the “bad” ideological settlers), united under the banner of ethnic separation and economic privatisation. This alliance promises Israelis not peace, but unilateral pacification and partial annexation as the West Bank is broken into walled enclaves.
It took some time for the Fence Coalition to take political shape, and its adherents go well beyond Kadima (Forward), the party formed around Sharon and his designated heir, Ehud Olmert. But on the ground, on the hills of the West Bank, the coalition has been evolving socially and economically for some time. At its core is an unholy alliance between settlers and state agencies subsidising the walls, real-estate companies and hi-tech entrepreneurs, the old economy and the new. The settlements now being built or expanded near the separation wall are the place where these important alliances are forged.
These settlements are not based on messianic fervour alone, but offer answers to social needs - quality of life for the upper middle class, jobs and subsidised housing for the underprivileged. They broaden the social base of the settlement movement and link it to additional constituencies, particularly the real wall profiteers: contractors, capitalists and the upper class seeking a grander life in gated communities, far from the poor and shielded from the Palestinians. They also tie to colonisation those searching for a way out of hardship, large families looking for cheap housing or new immigrants dependent on government subsidies and seeking social acceptance. These pay the price of the hostility and hatred that the wall generates, and are completely dependent on capitalists and politicians.
During the years of the Oslo peace process, settlements kept expanding and the number of settlers in the occupied territories more than doubled. Most of this massive expansion was in a few large settlements populated by non-ideological settlers: immigrants from the Russian Federation and Ethiopia channelled by state authorities, residents of poor neighbourhoods trying to better their lives, and large ultra-orthodox families seeking subsidised housing. They joined the colonial project reluctantly, only after the mid-1990s, no doubt because of the rapid privatising and dismantling of the welfare state within Israel. Two settlements of ultra-orthodox Jews, in Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit, together comprise more than a quarter of the West Bank settler population. Yet according to a recent survey, compared with Jewish communities within Israel and other West Bank settlements they are the poorest communities (8).
Residents of Modi’in Illit told Haaretz they did not consider themselves settlers (9). The housing shortage had pushed large ultra-orthodox families to the settlement where they receive government assistance and public housing not available in Israel. An expert on the ultra-orthodox said: “Their situation was so desperate, that they were prepared to move anywhere.” (Which is what settler leaders counted on.) “But even if they didn’t come here for ideological reasons,” said a spokesman for the Settlers’ Council, “they won’t give up their homes easily.” So the mechanism that incorporates people in colonialism and makes them settlers despite themselves is openly discussed. In 2003 the mayor of Betar Illit said the ultra-orthodox were sent to the occupied territories against their will as “cannon fodder”. Now, as the wall approaches, the settlers of Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit will set their hopes on it, seeking security in its shadow and identifying with the process of dispossession.
Gadi Algazi teaches history at Tel Aviv university and is a founder of the Arab-Jewish movement Ta’ayush
(1) Amira Hass, “Israeli Restrictions Create Isolated Enclaves in West Bank,” Haaretz, Tel Aviv, 24 March 2006.
(2) Meron Rapaport, “Symbol of Struggle”, Haaretz, 10 September 2005.
(3) Meron Rapaport, “Bil’in residents: Undercover troops provoked stone-throwing,” Haaretz, 14 October 2005; David Ratner, “Bil’in Protesters,” Haaretz, 7 November 2005.
(4) Haaretz, 8 January 2006.
(5) The settlers “transfer the land they purchased to the custodian, who declares it state land. This enables the planning process to start. The custodian allocates the land to the purchaser in the framework of the planning-authorisation agreement, and then for development, for no consideration.”
(6) Shosh Mula and Ofer Petersburg, “The Settler National Fund”, Yediot Aharonot, Tel Aviv, 27 January 2005.
(7) Mula and Petersburg, ibid.
(8) The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, Characterising Local Councils, February 2004.
(9) Tamar Rotem, “The price is right,” Haaretz, 23 September 2003.