“The Settlers”: an unsettling look at the Israeli settlements issue

Writer/Director Shimon Dotan’s new documentary film The Settlers is a compelling, must see, tour de force outline of the Israeli Settlement issue that has helped fuel the last 50 years of Middle East conflicts.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal advisors, settlements in areas held by Israel since the 1967 war which are beyond the country’s actual borders contravene the provisions of the Geneva Convention and international law. But that has not stopped the growth of these illegal settlements.

Dotan, a former Israeli Navy Seal, is fair-minded and careful to use the words and deeds of settlers and inhabitants themselves to briskly walk viewers through the region’s blood-soaked, contentious history.

To hear from the settlers, we are whisked along the Israeli-only roads, behind the protective walls and barbed wire, to heavily guarded enclaves. Here, seemingly out-of-place housing settlements with jagged red roofs and white cinder blocks scar the hillsides. They are replacing the indigenous thatched huts and cottages, disrupting centuries-old villages and olive orchards as they surround Palestinian cities.

The film details a variety of ruses used by settlers to commandeer these lands. Rabbi Moshe Levinger moved a settlement party into a Palestinian hotel claiming his group were Swiss tourists, for instance, and then just refused to leave. Settlement founder Sarah Nachshan and her husband moved on to contested land and began an enormous family which now numbers ten children, a hundred grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.

In another case, the ultra-conservative Rabbis Levinger and Tzvi Yehuda Kook and their followers refused to abide by the Israeli government’s borders. They claimed that “Greater Israel” was not bound by political borders, but by religious commandment, so they pushed on to long-held Palestinian lands.

Movement co-founder Yehuda Etzion proclaims in the film that Arabs who had lived on the land from time immemorial had to give up their rights and “renounce political aspirations.” “He will be a guest in our midst,” Etzion says of the Arab, “but will have no political rights.”

Settlers tell the viewer that God has determined that Arabs have no right to any of the land. “Every person has a role,” says leader Pinhasi Bar-On. “The people of Israel’s role is to conquer the land. To bequeath it and to banish the non-Jews from it.” Such racist logic is employed to justify extreme settlers attacking Palestinians and burning their homes.

At first, the Israeli government tried to limit such settlements. But it quickly saw the utility of armed security positions, particularly along the Jordan Valley and other areas where Palestinians had resisted occupation. These armed settlements were incorporated into the Israeli defense system.

They ended up serving as a wedge allowing further settlements. Repeatedly, settlers challenged the government attempts to limit their encroachment on Arab lands. Rabbi Hanan Porat spoke for the movement when he proclaimed: “The government can’t tell us what to do. Time after time, the government backed down, ultimately providing costly defense, support, and infrastructure for settlement development.”

When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was elected in 1992, he froze settlements. Rabin cited political, ethical, and economic reasons to limit further expansion. In 1993, he engaged in the Oslo Accords peace talks with the Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Those negotiations resulted in Israel’s agreement not to build additional settlements.

But after Rabin was assassinated by a right wing opponent, the settlements once more began to grow in size and number. Now, some 400,000 settlers have taken up residence in these contested areas, pushing up against the 2.7 million Palestinians already there.

Arabs have pushed back in two waves of Intifada, using economic measures and violence. Israelis, meanwhile, have continued to employ military incursions and vigilante reprisals.

For Israel, the difficult questions dealt with in The Settlers raise two existential issues. If a nation upholds laws based on people’s ethnic origins and maintains an income disparity of 1:20 between Palestinians and Israelis, is it not an apartheid system, as researchers like Dror Etkes argue in the film?

And if a nation allows a religious group to contravene its laws and thereby threaten the majority of its population, is it still a democracy?

By concluding with these questions, Shimon Dotan’s painstaking, thoughtful, and comprehensive treatment of The Settlers raises the hope that politicians will be able to address these issues in as measured terms as he does. Shining light on the challenges may lead to the path of solution.

Photo: Wikimedia (CC)


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.