It was early April 1988, at the height of the first intifada, and the hills were awash with spring flowers. I took the professor and activist Noam Chomsky to visit the Palestinian village of Beita near Nablus. He wanted to speak to the villagers about a recent incident in which a group of Israeli settlers from Elon Moreh, 10km (6 miles) from Beita, had got into a confrontation with some villagers while out hiking. Two of the Palestinian villagers and one of the Israeli settlers were shot and killed. The army initially blamed the Palestinians for the settler’s death. It emerged later that she – like the two dead villagers – had been killed by a bullet fired by one of the men guarding the settlers. But, by then, the army had invaded the village, destroyed at least 14 houses, killed a third villager, arrested dozens of men in the village and deported several of them. Chomsky listened attentively and was saddened but not surprised. He had anticipated that an increased rate of settlement-building would place the occupier and the occupied, the land confiscators and those who lost their land, close together physically – with predictable results.
This prediction has grown truer by the year, but I still could not have imagined the state we would be in 34 years later. Just last Friday, soldiers killed Adel Daoud, aged 14, and Mahdi Ladadweh, aged 17. On Saturday, two more teenagers, Mahmoud Al-Sous and Ahmed Daraghmeh, were killed. The number of people killed by Israeli forces this year stands, shockingly, at more than 100.
For many years, the land around Beita was generally peaceful, and we enjoyed many lovely walks in the valley below the mountain of Jabal Sabih. It was surrounded by olive orchards. The track we would walk along had smooth rocks where water flowed in winter, and in spring carpets of multicoloured wildflowers covered both sides.
Then, last February, the Israeli attorney general moved to authorise the re-establishment of the evacuated Israeli settlement of Evyatar, on land that is privately owned by Palestinians, near Beita on Jabal Sabih. Since May 2021, regular protests have been held by Palestinians against this outpost and other settlements in the area, resulting in nine Palestinians being killed and 5,300 injured.
At the time of Chomsky’s visit, there was still some expectation that the Israeli political opposition to settlements had some prospect of success. Today, the left in Israel is almost completely silenced. The major parties in next month’s elections compete on who is the greater proponent of settlements, and who takes a tougher line at quashing Palestinian resistance to it. The prime minister, Yair Lapid, and defence minister, Benny Gantz (both of “liberal”, “centrist” parties), each tries to prove to voters that, contrary to what the right claims, they are not weak on “security”. This means that, until the elections take place, we can only expect more Palestinians to be maimed and killed.
In the 1980s, there was also the possibility of challenging the illegal takeover of Palestinian land through appeals to the Israeli high court. But in recent times the court has proved that it is “unmatched as a rubber stamp and whitewasher of the injustices of the occupation”, as a Haaretz editorial put it last May. Likewise, any restraint on Israel in the form of opposition to this illegality from Britain, the EU and the US, has been entirely ineffective and restricted to formulaic statements, leaving Israel free to violate international law on building settlements in the occupied territories with total impunity.
Driving along the roads of the West Bank, one can see billboards advertising luxury flats for sale in the settlements. Not only are Palestinians excluded from the offer, but the billboards are placed on their land without permission or payment. As I drive through, with Israeli settlements dominating the hills, and road signs in Hebrew pointing to them – and also renaming springs, wadis and dry rivers – a great sense of alienation comes on me. I feel like a stranger in a once familiar and much-loved landscape.
But it is not only through building homes for settlers that West Bank land is expropriated. As Ze’ev Hever, the secretary general of Amana, a settler organisation declared in 2021: “Construction takes up little ground … The shepherd farms … now cover an area almost twice as large as the built area of the settlements.” The area now controlled by shepherd settlers is about 60,000 acres. Predictably, violence related to the control of land is on the rise.
Just like many colonial powers, Israel believes that it can quash, through force, resistance to its settlement policies, whether armed clashes or peaceful marches – all of which it calls terrorism. Yet, in this, Israel is as mistaken as all colonisers have been throughout history. Palestinians will continue to resist. They can never accept the takeover of their land and their confinement to less than one third of their territory, whatever force Israel uses against them.
A few weeks after the start of the occupation in 1967, my father, Aziz Shehadeh, submitted a plan – for which he was able to get the support of 50 prominent Palestinian leaders from different parts of the occupied territories – for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, according to the 1947 partition borders, with its capital in the Arab section of Jerusalem. At the time there were no Jewish settlements anywhere in the West Bank, eastern Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip. The argument that he used was that unless Israel, with a population of 2.7 million, negotiated with the Palestinians, it would not be able to control the 1.2 million of them who had come under its control. He proposed that, for Israel, it was like living next to a ticking timebomb. But this failed to impress the Israeli government.
Now, more than half a century later, Israel is in full control of the Palestinian population living in Israel itself and in the occupied territories. Its leaders have come to believe that the country can “manage” the occupation for a long time to come.
It was also my father’s belief that, without peace with the Palestinians, Israel can never live in peace. On that, he has been proven right. This week, two Israeli soldiers were killed in four days.
- Raja Shehadeh is the author of We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I (Profile Books)
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